Arctic Visitors

I went to the Oregon Coast for New Year’s and spent two days wearing all the layers I brought, plus my sunglasses. Any local can tell you that while cold might be normal this time of year, it’s not usually this cold. And sunglasses are not always a necessity on our gray Northwest beaches, even in the summer. There’s clearly something special going on. The Pacific at Cape Disappointment

We in Northwest Oregon owe our current week of unusually cold and unusually sunny winter weather to a visiting blast of high pressure artcic air, which we’re usually insulated from by a double-layered Mountain defense system. The coldest air starts over the Arctic interior of the continent, and if there’s enough, some of crosses the Rockies to the West and warms a bit as it descends. Most of the time, it stays parked there, because its path further is blocked by the Cascades. And if it does make it over the Cascades to our cozy little valley, it has to descend even more, so it’s warmer still by the time it gets here. Usually in the Willamette Valley, we spend the winter under a warm blanket of moist air that comes off the Pacific, and only visit that cold, dry air to the East when we want to.

What’s going on now, though, is that a high pressure system East of the Cascades is sending that weather to come visit us on its way to a low pressure system off the coast. It’s squeezing all that cold, dry air straight through the Columbia River Gorge at us, and producing some high winds on the way. That warm moist blanket of air we’re used to is being shoved out to sea by this cold dry one.

That’s the simplified version I understand, at least, and I owe it largely to Cliff Mass, author of the very informative, readable, and well-illustrated (not to mention aptly named!) book, The Weather of the Pacific Northwest. He’s a Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington, and also writes a great Weather Blog  about the weather in the Pacific NW and beyond. I think some basic weather background is helpful in reading it, but you can enjoy much of it as a layperson. After reading his stuff, I’m able to interpret some of the details in the forecast discussion from the National Weather Service at to fill in the rest. (That’s right, I hope none of you rely on, which is to as Fox News is to the New York Times.)

Whatever the pressure systems behind it, though, I’m enjoying this weather, and finding the cold is a price I’m happy to pay for the sun. I don’t generally mind the gray of winter around here — I think it really brings out the greens of the foliage it a lovely way — but there’s something special about winter sunshine.

To be specific, that something special is the angle of the sun in the sky. Even at noon, the sun is fairly low at this lattitude, so it’s like the sun is rising or setting all day. Usually, it’s diffused by the clouds, but in this sunny spell, we’ve been getting beautiful shadows and warm colored light all day long. Residents of many areas of the country may take this for granted as at least a semi-regular occurance, but it happens rarely enough here that I really appreicate it.

Check out these two pictures if you’re not sure what I mean. The first was taken about 9am on New Year’s Eve, a more typically cloudy coastal morning (that’s a hundred-year-old shipwreck in the background!), and the second was taken about 9am on New Year’s Day, when the New Year started with some sun.Driftwood & Shipwreck

Arctic Visitor in Winter Light

The second picture owes its shadows and contrast to that visiting Arctic air, and it contains another Arctic visitor, as well. Though my camera’s meager zoom capabilities make it hard to see, that white dot in the center is a Great Snowy Owl. These guys live and nest up on the tundra above the arctic circle, but have been known to occasionally show up in more southerly places. The tip of Point Adams (The Oregon side of the mouth of the Columbia) is lucky to be hosting a couple of these magestic birds this winter, even though this is pretty far south for them. And I was certainly lucky to see one when I wasn’t even looking for it. It was a huge, magical bird.

Welcome to the New Year, everyone. I have a feeling these two visitors from the North are very good signs of things to come.


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