It all began in the Mojave Desert
I’m a weather nut. Have been since I was a little boy. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the Mojave desert. Except for the often spectacular heat, the weather in my home town of Las Vegas is deadly dull.
Sure, we would get our annual summer “monsoon” thunderstorms as moist air pushed up from Baja and Mexico:
The lightning from them could be truly spectacular and delighted a little boy’s heart:
And yes, ever four or five years a strong winter storm would leave an inch or more of snow in the Vegas Valley:
We kids loved it, but lots of people freaked out, and there was always a spate of car crashes as people not used to ice on the roads drove like Vegans usually do—way too fast.
But for extreme weather, that’s about it. Except for the heat. (You really can cook eggs on the sidewalk in the height of summer. I did it as a kid on a number of 115 degree °F days.)
Now for some real weather!
So, when I moved to Boston in the mid-’70s, I was in weather nut heaven! Finally, some real weather. In New England you have it all: rainstorms, snow storms, wind storms, blizzards, nor’easters, flash floods, heat waves, brutal cold snaps, and even the occasional tornado and hurricane! How many places can you think of that have blizzards and hurricanes and tornadoes? New England gets them all! (Yes, that’s the Statue of Liberty with a tornado in the distance!)
Here’s some shots of the Great Blizzard of ’78. I’ll never forget walking around the eerily quiet streets of Boston at the level of the rooftops of the cars buried in the drifts:
As Mark Twain famously noted:
“There is a sumptuous variety about the New England weather that compels the stranger’s admiration — and regret. The weather is always doing something there; always attending strictly to business; always getting up new designs and trying them on the people to see how they will go.”
The Dynamic Duo of New England Weather
The reason New England gets all of this weather is because it happens to be located near the semipermanent low pressure area called the Icelandic Low. Much of the time in winter this low pressure area looks something like this, as huge storm systems develop in it:
Located between Iceland and southern Greenland, the Icelandic low pulls all the weather of North America towards it, and thus, toward New England. If New England weather sucks, it’s because the Icelandic Low sucks—all the weather masses of North America toward it.
But the Icelandic Low has a partner in crime—the Azores or Bermuda High:
This huge semipermanent area of subtropical high pressure is the other pole of what is called the North Atlantic Oscillation. In the summer, the high pressure area tends to move toward North America. Its clockwise rotating air pumps warm, moist air up the Atlantic coast to New England. This is why a place that gets blizzards and below zero weather also gets sweltering, humid 90 degree °F heat in the summer. Don’t you just love it?
Not only that, the Azores High’s clockwise rotation tends to create tropical waves off of Africa and send them toward North America. These pressure waves often become tropical storms, and sometimes, hurricanes. The Azores High sends them all toward the Caribbean and North America. When the high moves even further west, it will even shunt hurricanes up the East Coast, and that’s why New England can also get hurricanes. Here’s a typical track of a hurricane sweeping around the Azores High and roaring up the Atlantic Coast toward New England and the distant Icelandic Low.
This double-whammy of the Icelandic Low and the Bermuda High is why there’s always some weather mass or storm merrily marching through New England.
If you love weather, and lots of it, move to New England!
So, if I love weather, why did I leave New England?
As an amateur meteorologist, I loved my time in New England. I relished her nor’easters, hurricanes, blizzards, cold snaps, snow storms, and heat spells. The clouds were often magnificent and came in every variety. Over time, however, the long, cold New England winters started to get to me as the initial novelty of them for a desert boy wore off.
I loved fall in New England; still do. It’s New England’s best and most beautiful season. Here’s an image of Malden in the fall of 2008, my last Fall in the Boston area. (click for a nice large image)
But I more and more, I was dreading the winters.
It wasn’t just how early winters started and how long they lasted. It wasn’t just the damp, penetrating wind-driven cold. (Forget it Chicago, Boston is the real windy city!) The coup de grace was day after day of grey, overcast skies. I need sun! I need to see blue skies, even in winter—even if howling winds make the windchill 20 below! Just gimme some sun! And after three decades in New England, I just needed a new place that (for me) reflected a brighter, happier outlook on life (not that one can’t be happy in New England; I’m talking about the physical environment.)
As a final send-off, just before we left for California, New England got in one last nor’easter. Not a record setter, but afterwards, the snow and slush all froze, and it was bitter cold until we took the Amtrak Zephyr to the Golden West. Adios New England!
So, here I am in Berkeley, with my dear wife—blue skies galore, even in winter, and no 20 below windchill! Yes, I know the Bay area has its winter rainy season. I know it can be rainy for days, even weeks. (We arrived in the middle of winter when we moved here.) I now know what the fogs of summer are all about (not nearly as bad as advertised.)
But Bay area weather at its worst is just not in the same league as bad weather in New England. In New England, you get more of everything—more cold, more clouds, more rain, more heat, more humidity, more wind, more….just more! And less—less sunny days, less time you can spend outside, less comfortable weather.
The Glorious Weather and Climate of the San Francisco Bay area
So, now I turn my weather eyes to the amazing climate and weather of the San Francisco Bay area. It may not be as “exciting” weather-wise here, but there’s plenty going on, and the big picture is very interesting.
We have our own version of the Icelandic Low up in the Aleutians off the coast of Alaska. But instead of pulling continental weather to it, this semipermanent low pressure area spins off storm after storm, creating most of the weather in the North America, and indeed, much of the weather in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s called the Aleutian Low, and its monumental storms are some of the biggest and most powerful on Earth.
In winter, these huge storms spin out of the Gulf of Alaska and crash into Canada, the Northwest, and Northern California. After dropping huge quantities of rain and snow, they still have enough moisture and energy to move on and create rain and snowstorms across the entire country.
And of course, in California, we feel the powerful effects of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, often abbreviated by meteorologists as ENSO. El Niño not only has dramatic effects on California weather, it affects weather all over the world. As a newcomer here, I’ve not personally experienced an El Niño event, but as a long-time student of weather, I sure know how damaging they can be here in California:
I’ll be talking a lot more about all of this fascinating weather stuff in future posts. But for now, I’m just going to kick back and enjoy this sunny Berkeley day in early December. Wow, I can wear my t-shirt outside! Wow, I don’t have to wear my heavy New England winter jacket. Wow, the wind isn’t freezing my face off! This year in Boston, it snowed heavily in October, and at night there, it’s already in the low 30s and high 20s °F.
My New England friends tell me they are having a warm spell right now, after the “summer that wasn’t.” (Boy, do I remember a lot of those!) But, alas, they are still doomed. Winter is coming, and there’s no stopping it!
Dear New England, I loved you, but your long, cold, dark winters will grind me down no more! I’ve found my personal paradise here in Berkeley and the Berkeley Hills. And I’m here to stay!