Enjoying the Temperature Inversion

January 20, 2009

One side effect of December’s crazy weather is it made Cliff Mass, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington, a local celebrity. Many people around here know Cliff from his Friday morning segments on the local NPR station, where he gives the background on the weekend forecast. He does a great job explaining what’s certain and what’s uncertain about the forecast and offers real insight into the region’s climate.

When the cold and the snow descended on Washington (and didn’t go away!), the entire town found it couldn’t wait for Friday mornings for Cliff’s weekly weather update. We had to know the latest information right now. And that’s when many discovered, like I did, that Cliff now keeps a blog at http://cliffmass.blogspot.com/. It’s now a regular part of my Internet reading.

Here’s an example of why it’s great to get the story behind the weather. If you just listened to the Seattle weather forecasts for the last few days, all you’d know is that we’d have patchy fog and temperatures in the 40s. Reading Cliff’s blog, I learned the story behind the forecast. We were experiencing a temperature inversion – a condition when air temperatures increase as you increase altitude. And as Cliff notes here, you can escape the persistent cold and fog by just going up.

So Saturday morning, that’s what I did. I coaxed Alex into the car saying we were on an adventure to try to find the sun. At our house, we had thick, thick fog. It was really cold outside, by Seattle standards. Those reading this from Minnesota will laugh at our definition of “cold.” Cold here means that I made sure to grab a hat and mittens for Alex when we headed out of the house, but I didn’t make him wear them as we got in the car. We then drove the half hour to Cougar Mountain Park, which I’d never been to before.

For a while, I thought this was going to be a disaster. I’d brought Alex’s hat and mittens, but nothing for myself. The fog showed no signs of breaking up. And as we drove up Cougar Mountain, it just seemed to be getting colder. Crap, I thought,_ maybe this mountain isn’t high enough to get out of the cold weather._

When I was just five minutes away from the park entrance, I saw that I was in freezing fog. All of the tree branches had about an eighth of an inch of ice on them. It was quite beautiful, and I wished I could stop for pictures, but I didn’t think I could convince Alex that walking around in the foggy cold was fun.

Then, suddenly, I turned a corner and all of the fog was gone. The sun was shining and there was nothing but bright blue skies overhead. It was the strangest thing. Moments later, I was in the parking lot. Alex & I got out, and sure enough, it was quite balmy. I didn’t have a thermometer, but I estimate it was in the upper 40s in the sun, maybe warmer; really quite comfortable.

More amazing than the temperature (and its contrast to the weather at our house) was the view. Here’s a sample.

Mount Baker

Below us, thick clouds. Above us, blue skies. And in the distance, the Cascade range, looking incredibly clear and close. What you see above is Mount Baker, which is almost in Canada. This was a real treat. If it hadn’t been for Cliff Mass, I wouldn’t have known to take this short trip. My only regret is I couldn’t stay longer – I had to get Alex back for a nap and then I had to head out to the afternoon’s piano recital.

If you click the picture below, you can see a slideshow of my photos from the morning.

Alex above the clouds