7/22/2014

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Sunshine 6 days a week in winter in Seattle? Earliest records said so...

Sunshine 6 days a week in winter in Seattle? Earliest records said so...
FILE -- Late 19th century weather map of the United States. (Photo: National Weather Service)
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Sure, Seattle has quite the rainy reputation, but did you know when records first began being kept in Seattle, there was nary a drop to be found?

In fact, the very first observation in Seattle noted in official record books was: a sunny day!

In February!

(I guess the pessimist would say it had nowhere to go but down.)

I stumbled upon this little fact while researching my blog for Monday about the intense heat wave of 1870. In looking for where exactly in Seattle those observations were taken, I found this incredibly thorough 52-page report on the history of weather observations in Seattle, written and prepared by Glen Conner of Scottsville, Kentucky for the Midwestern Regional Climate Center. Conner's excellent research is the source of this blog's information. 

Conner found that James E. Whitworth, who tracked that heat wave in July, was the very first to volunteer to take official weather observations for Seattle. From his residence at what is now roughly 3rd and Yesler in Downtown Seattle, he'd note the temperature, cloud cover and wind data three times a day. Then, at the end of the month, he'd send his form off to the Smithsonian Institute, which was in charge of keeping such data then.

His work began in the middle of winter -- Seattle's first official weather observation was taken Feb. 16, 1870 at 2 p.m.  

Temperature? 55. Clear skies, calm wind.

The next day? Sunny, calm, 55. Day 3? Sunny, calm, 55. It's a winter paradise! The city's first rain was noted on Feb 19, then three more days dry. The 66° reading on Feb. 22 is warmer than Seattle's current record high for the day (64).

The first week of recorded winter weather in Seattle had six days of sunshine!


Photo courtesy: National Climatic Data Center via Glen Conner

Seattle's recorded winter would never again seem so tranquil. It got cloudy...then... rained every day the rest of the month. And the rainy reality locals knew already was now officially etched in record books.

But what I gather was the 19th Century version of the Chamber of Commerce was on it. Conner notes that the 1872 City Directory of Seattle described the city's climate as having a "temperature that cannot be excelled" and recognized newcomers to the area "do not at first take kindly to the gloomy, drizzling weather, but if they consider for a few moments they will see how far superior it is to the biting cold, chilling sleet, snow and slush of the Atlantic States."

Translation: "It rains a lot here, but it's better than a Massachusetts winter!"

Observations bounced all over the place

Whitworth kept records until the Smithsonian Institute was replaced by a new Signal Corps' Weather Service in 1871. Only problem? Seattle didn't have a Signal Corps Station established until 1877, so there is a 6 year gap in weather records for Seattle then. We'll just assume it was sunny and 72 year 'round.  

Observations continued fairly regularly from there on out -- a few gaps here and there as observers changed and locations drifted over what today is a few blocks centered around the present day Smith Tower. (See page 14 of the study).

Eventually as the city grew, Seattle got its first Weather Bureau observation station in 1893 at the New York Block on 2nd and Cherry. That building had issues, including it was a 7-floor hike to the top to read the instruments and was pretty far from the post office, where observations and forecasts were disseminated, but they made do. Then 12 years later in 1905, in a situation Downtown residents can still relate to this day, a much taller building was erected next door (the 14-story Alaska Building -- still there at 2nd and Cherry) that provided an unfortunate wind barrier to the anemometer.  

So, if you can't beat them, join them, and the Weather Bureau moved its office to the Alaska Building, where it stayed until it moved again in 1911 to the Hoge Building across the street (no truth to the rumor it was to be a block closer to the future Starbucks cafe). There it would stay until 1933 when it moved to the Federal Building on 1st between Marion and Madison streets. The Federal Building kept Seattle observations until 1972, but was replaced as the official Seattle observation station in 1944 when Sea-Tac Airport opened.  

How did they disseminate forecasts?  

What I found most fascinating was the challenges meteorologists faced in getting the forecast word out. Never mind there were no Facebook, Twitter or fancy phone apps -- there wasn't TV or radio or much anything else. Instead, data was transmitted via telegraph to central offices in Washington D.C. in what would one day transform into the National Weather Service. But what about the general public? In the super early days, Conner found the weather folks would use flags posted atop the tall buildings to denote their forecast.  

There were five essential flags: Three square ones that denote precipitation --a white square flag for clear weather, a blue square flag for rainy or snowy weather and a half blue-half white flag for showers (what -- sunbreaks hadn't been invented yet?) Temperature wasn't given like "63" or "48" but just a trend denoted by a black triangular flag. If the black flag was flown above the precipitation flag, it was set to get warmer and below the other flag meant colder. If the black flag was absent, the temperature was expected to remain generally the same. They did have a white square flag with a black square in the middle to denote a cold wave approaching for a rapid drop in temperatures below 42 degrees. (See page 42.)  

Wind was then denoted by red and white square and triangular flags with the position and color of the triangular flag denoting wind direction: White triangle over red square: Northwest wind. Red triangle under red square: Southeast winds, etc.  

If the square red flag had a white square center: Light winds expected. Black squares in the middle: Sailors take warning. Two red square flags with the black centers (still used today to denote hurricane warnings): Severe wind storm approaching.  


Photo: NOAA Photolibrary, National Weather Service Collection, Archival Photograph by Mr. Sean Linehan via About.com/Weather

But in a development current meteorologists can relate to, people who could see the flags often criticized the forecast and also had the complaint that you couldn't "read" the forecast when winds were calm and the flags were limp (Modern translation: It's like the 4G signal went dead and there was no WiFi to be had!) It was also likely where the first weatherman insults were coined: "Wish I had a job where I could blame being wrong on droopy flags."  (What about at night? Forecasters generally used lanterns to denote expected conditions.)

In 1895, weather data evolved to where the Seattle office would receive a forecast from headquarters to generate an official weather map. The Seattle office would then create hundreds of post cards with the forecast that would go to subscribers and have other maps delivered by messenger to places that would then post them in public spaces, where "likes" were measured by audible gasps and groans.  Maps were also delivered to the Seattle Times and Seattle P-I and then other regional newspapers would get their forecast from those papers' maps. (See page 52 of the report.)

Also noted by Conner was that the Seattle Weather Bureau office got its first phone in 1894 to disseminate warnings and other information, but was also being used by the public to request information! It's like Siri's great-great-great-grandfather.  

Eventually, technology advanced through telegraphs and telephones and radios and TVs and iPhones and Google Glass to where it's hard to escape getting weather information. And yes, despite what many think, forecasts are much more accurate these days as well -- no need to blame droopy flags.  

For More Information:

Glen Conner's full report.  

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July 10th among Seattle's ''Final Four'' of original heat records July 10th among Seattle's ''Final Four'' of original heat records