Wednesday, January 18, 2012

About that Snow

Freezing Optimism
Coming up on "Snow Day" Number Three here in Seattle and environs. 

A series of storms have come in over the weekend and into this week that have dumped a fair amount of snow on the region. Not as much as expected here in Seattle, more in other areas, but that hasn't stopped people from dubbing this event "Snowmageddon." (By the way, this is hardly original. "Snowmageddon" is the name of a pretty bad made-for-TV movie and we were already tweeting about it and "snomg" in 2008.) 

This has even made the national news.  Did you know that we've been "walloped" and "pounded" and now even the LA Times is calling us "wimps," Los Angeles!? At least the commenters on that piece have the good sense to throw it right back. People gripe about how incapable Seattleites are of driving on snow and there are lots of fun online videos showing the snow-related bumper-car festivities accompanied by gleeful schadenfreude-driven comments. "Look at those idiot Seattleites!" they cry "We KNOW how to drive on snow where I live." Even Jim Cantore (Who? Oh, now I know) made the trip out just to report on this. 

So listen up America!

Yes, it is a Subaru!
Of course we can drive on snow! We do it all the time. In the mountains, where we ski, snow shoe, and run. Every other car is a Subaru (I am exaggerating) precisely because we like to drive in snow. Heck, we even like to ski in the city and enjoy a little sofa sledding.

So let me tell you a little bit about this snow thing. It is and it isn't about snow. It is about ice. In fact, I am just back inside from a late evening session of spreading ice melt on the sidewalks with a neighbor. It is dark out there and the surface of the snow is covered with an ice crust of at least a quarter inch thick. It makes for a satisfying crunch and in the places where it is packed down (like in the road) for a seriously slippery surface. Wunderground reports 27 degrees out there. Tomorrow morning everything is likely to be as slippery as a hockey rink

I once heard U-Dub Atmospheric Scientist Cliff Mass explain what happens here. First we get snow which generally melts because the ground is never really cold enough to freeze. Then because of the regional topography and weather patterns, we get a nice shot of really cold air out of the Frasier River Valley which has the effect of freezing the snow melt. We get a nice hard glaze that, depending upon the length of the cold snap, sticks around for a while. Our normal weather pattern returns, 40-odd degrees and overcast, the ice and snow melts, and then we have urban flooding. We are in the icing pattern now. By Friday the thaw will come in and it will be time to trade snow boots for Wellies. 

Any major metropolitan area that experiences that kind of icing sees traffic rapidly turn into  a bumper car ride. This is something one learns growing up amid the Midwestern Metropolises not to mention the occasional ice-storms that shut everything down for days in the East. And then there was that year (1987-88) where Newark, Delaware was slammed with so much snow that we could only walk on the road. The sidewalks were covered under six-foot piles while residents tried vainly to sweep the snow with brooms and shovel it with dust pans. As to urban flooding, well there is that rather telegenic house right at the bottom of Malibu Canyon Road that took ALL of the run-off during the major storms during the 1990's. 

Seattle isn't so different. 

Except for one thing. The Hills. 

Yep, Seattle has hills. Most of them natural and some of them human-made, the result of a rather ambitious regrading project during the late 1800's and early 1900's. How hilly is Seattle? According to the Seattle DOT we've got streets as steep as 26% and "many blocks in town with 18% to 21% grades." Get yourself a protractor or a big compass and see what that actually looks like. Then imagine driving up it or down it on ice or wet packed down snow. What is that like? I don't care what you are driving or if you have chains, studded tires, sandbags, whatever, you are going for a ride. In 2008 I saw a woman helplessly sliding down a modest hill in my neighborhood looking for all the world like a ball in a pinball machine. She was holding her head and screaming as she went past. Holding on to the steering wheel was pointless. Should she have taken another route? Probably. Was there another route? Ah, now there is a conundrum. Play with this map to see. Try going from Phinney Ridge or Ballard over to the U District or Wedgwood without hitting any hills. Should she have tried the bus? Walked? Not for me to say. 

Walking or running up and down those hills when they are icy is something to try. I have. It can get quite fun. Sometimes, as PuddleThumper will attest, a nice pair of screw shoes is indicated. 

Now, this really isn't a rant (well maybe except for the LA Times part and the media histrionics). It is odd to live in a place that shuts down like Seattle does. When we first moved here I was a bit surprised at this state of affairs and more than a little skeptical of my student's excuses, "I live on a steep hill and . . ." But having lived here for some time now I've come to understand that what makes Seattle pretty special (it's moderate weather) comes at a price. It really wouldn't matter how many plows the city has or how much salt and sand they put down. Given what happens, there is only so much that can be done.

Te at Saint Edwards State Park
So here's to day three of the Snow Days. School districts in the region have cancelled classes as have The Learning Factory and the Mega-Research/Learning Factory just down the track. It is nice to hang out on the couch with a fire going and work away at all the things I never have time to do. Even nicer to venture out into a world that has slowed way down and in which people take joy at playing in the snow. 

I've managed to go running in the snow for the past two days. Both times coming home into the freezing wind out of the north. This afternoon my running hat was frozen as was my jacket and my face was windburned. My tummy (yep I got one of those) was actually also quite chilled and looked like it was on its way towards frostbite. Perhaps I should have heeded this advice? Oh wait, I did. 

The dog has been exhausted by all this romping around. He was covered in ice this afternoon too. What a blast.  

I know it is inconvenient and costs the economy, one of my neighbor's stores made a whole $16 today, but the city and the community generally continues to function. That is, if one is not working minimum wage or homeless and actually outside in all this mess or both. Let's not forget that . . . 

Update: 6:45 AM 

Rare ice storm warning issued by the NWS. Roads are, indeed, skating rinks, SeaTac has closed all runways, and . . . 

Time to find that sand.


Ann said...

hi robin, nice posting. you are right, the best thing about the snomg is the world does slow down and everyone becomes child like and enJOYS the snow.
i grew up in the midwest. Took drivers ed when snowbanks were 15' high. BUT the town was FLAT . no hills.
i best not read the LA article.:)

Generation X (Slomohusky) said...

Seattle and Snow - it is a greatly missed adventure and wonder. I grew up in Edmonds ad later lived in Kirkland, with a few years living in the Madison Park area of Seattle. I also lived in the Midwest. The big differences is the hills, but in Edmonds and Kirkland - all the sidestreets! They don't sand/salt/chemically treat the streets like the do in the Midwest. I only felt snowbound once in Kansas in the four winters there.

Regardless - I LOVE THE SW DESERT!

every other car is a Subaru, and the one in between is a Volvo. Love the desert, but I miss Seattle sensibilities.

rpd said...

@ Ann. Talking with neighbors over the past day the common refrain seems to be "Indeed, this slow-down has been rather pleasant but now it is getting quite . . . umm . . . boring." Amazing how addicted we seem to be to the hurly burly of everyday life. :-)

@ Slomo After the last major shut down in 2008 the city changed its policies on salting and icing. We are doing it now. It does help but not as much as in places in the Midwest where they are generally saturated with plowing crews and trucks.

rpd said...

One more snow day!

I haven't been on campus since last Thursday and am getting a bit worried about how to reconstitute my classes. My students have been ominously quiet over the whole week and it is going to be difficult to get them back into the frame of mind.