January 01, 2018

Northwest Mountains Protect Us From the Cold

Much of the U.S. is in the deep freeze, with temperatures in the single digits along the NE U.S. coast and temperatures dropping to -30F or less in Montana, a one day car ride for most of the readers of this blog.

But today, temperatures in western Washington will be relatively balmy, with highs reaching into the lower to mid 40s over western WA and Oregon, while east of the Rockies, the HIGHS will get perhaps to -15F in some locations (see National Weather Service Forecasts for today, Monday):

Why doesn't the cold dense air within the interior of the continent slosh over us, like it is doing over the east coast? 

The reason:  our mountains, which provide  multiple lines of defense that our beloved Seahawks would be jealous of.

Take a look at the minimum temperatures this morning.  In central and eastern Montana, the lows dropped to -30F and colder.   Big Sky Country is frozen solid.  Cross the Rockies into eastern Washington and the situation is relatively balmy, with lows dropping into the teens and low 20s.  Cross another barrier (the Cascades) and drop into western Washington/Oregon and the lows reach only the mid-20s to around 30F.   Cross another barrier (the coastal mountains including the Olympics) and temperatures only dropped into 30s and mid-40sF in some location. 

So we are talking about an 80F difference in low temperatures between the WA coast and central Montana, a distance of roughly 600 miles.

The key to understanding our temperatures situation is the blocking effect of the major regional terrain barriers, coupled with the relatively warm Pacific Ocean.

Currently, cold high pressure dominates the central portions of the U.S. (see NWS sea level pressure map below).  Over our region, there is a weak offshore pressure gradient (high pressure inland), which results in offshore (easterly flow) over the Northwest.   This pattern reduces the impacts of the warm Pacific for the NW interior (click on image to enlarge, the solid lines are lines of constant sea level pressure)

Our terrain is well known to most of you (see map).  The Rockies are a huge and high barrier...it does the heavy lifting of cold-air protection, blocking the coldest and densest air near the surface.   The Cascades are lower and narrower, but do block the coldest air in the Columbia Basin from reaching the wset, with one exception:  in the sea level Columbia Gorge.

But there is a bit more to the blocking effects, which is best understood by a vertical cross section through our regional barriers (see below).   This figure is from my book on Northwest Weather.

As noted earlier, very cold/dense air at low levels over the continental interior is blocked by the Rockies.   Some air (at the crest level of the Rockies) does make it into eastern Washington, but that air sinks down the western slopes of the Rockies and thus is warmed by compression as it loses elevation.  (The air is going from lower pressure aloft to higher pressure near the surface).   The same process occurs with the Cascades and the coastal mountains....each barrier results in warming of the air reaching the surface.

Near the coast, the relatively warm (roughly 50F) waters of the Pacific come into play.  Any onshore flow will flood the coast with mild marine air.

Another way to see the impacts of terrain is from a forecast of sea level pressure (solid lines) and 925 hPa (around 3000 ft) temperatures (white and purple are the coldest temps) for 10 AM toda (see below).  You can see the impacts of the Cascades, keeping the colder air over eastern Washington away from the west.   Look closely and you will notice tongues of cold air and high pressure trying to push across the Cascades...those are the passes.   And look closer (click on image to expand) and you will see a substantial pressure difference across the Cascades, which can drive easterly winds in the passes and the Columbia Gorge.

At Crown Point in the Columbia Gorge, the winds are now gusting to 75 mph, with SUSTAINED winds just under 50 mph. 

With high pressure over and east of our region, there will be plenty of sun on New Years day.


  1. It's still COLD here!!! How do those easterners stand what they get? Why?

  2. Rabbit - a lot of the people in the Midwest and East are of northern-European ancestry. These are tough people from a place where cold is the norm. My German-American mother was born and raised on a farm in South Dakota with no electricity. Ask her about it she just gives you that steely-eyed knowing look. And yes, that toughness does get passed down through the generations.

  3. We also benefit from the general west to east movement of weather systems. So even if there were no mountains we would rarely get as cold as the midwest. So we have two factors in our favor.

  4. Seattle Times reports a 4 year rain record by aggregating the last 4 years. Any relation to climate change or is it just normal variation?

  5. Cold is when the pipes INSIDE the walls of your house freeze when the house is properly heated. Happened in my new house in CO in the -20F range. Poor construction (interior pipes near outer walls need serious insulation in the Rockies), but still, the interior was in the 70's.

    Western WA doesn't really get cold, except maybe Whatcom during a bad Fraser River outflow, and even then, not that much. But like most things, it's relative. Met an elderly Spokane native yesterday who moved here to Sequim last summer. He was marvelling at the wonderfully comfortable summer and winter weather near the water. So cool in summer. So warm in winter.

    Also interesting to learn from this blog how significant the ranges of mountains are in ensuring that blue cold stays bottled up in the middle of the continent. /

  6. Rabbit's Guy - are you serious? Part and parcel of why some folks on the Western Coast have no understanding of what goes on in "flyover country," nor do they wish to even try.

  7. Awesome explanation!
    Very nice to read.

    Thank you!


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