December 17, 2020

Knowing About Rainshadows to Find Sunshine on These Dark Days

 The Seattle Times had a front page article today saying half of Seattle's residents are depressed and by a small margin we are the most depressed major city in the U.S.!

Well, there are many reasons suggested for this depression, including the dismal state of our municipal leadership, but the article mentions an old favorite:  the lack of sun this time of the year.

Fortunately, this is one problem that meteorological knowledge can help with.  

A secret that most meteorologists know:  that on most days even in our sodden area, there are regions of sun in the sea of clouds.  The areas of rainshadows.   And, if you are able to drive a bit, you can often put yourself under the depression-killing rays of the winter sun.

I have talked about rainshadows several times in the blog, but let me provide a brief review.   When air approaches a terrain barrier (such as the Olympic Mountains or Cascade range), it is forced to rise on one side (the windward side) and to sink on the downstream (leeward) side.  When air rises, it cools and can form clouds, but sinking air  on the lee side warms and drys, often providing sunny skies in  the rainshadow.

One sees this effect nearly every day in our region, with clearing skies downstream of the Olympics and Cascades.  But the wind direction and speed varies day by day, as does moisture and other variables, and thus the location and extent of rain shadows can change.

Take today.  Where were the sunny spots around noon (in this case, 12:20 PM PST)?  

The visible satellite image for that time (see below) tells you exactly where to go:  to the southeast of Vancouver island and the Olympic Mountains, as well as downstream of central and southern Cascades.  This makes a lot of sense because the general winds were from the northwest today, so those areas are the ones with sinking air.   The windward sides of the mountains were in clouds and depressing.

Can we know where the rain shadow will be ahead of time?  You bet.  Our high resolution forecast models provide cloud forecasts.  For example, here is the forecast for noon from a model run that started at 4 PM the previous day (see below).  Not perfect, but the rainshadows noted above were relatively well predicted.

To show you that this situation is no fluke,   Here is the visible satellite image for Monday afternoon.....some nice rainshadows downstream of terrain.  Cloudy over north Seattle (there was a convergence zone going on), but sun to the north and south.

So, if you want to go sun/rainshadow chasing,what do you do?

First, go to my department website and look at the visible satellite animation (click here).
And if you are adventuresome, you can even look at our model forecasts of the clouds (click here).

Perhaps with more local residents using meteorology to find the light, we can give up first place in big-city depression.   And replacing several on the Seattle City Council might help as well.

I will do a podcast tomorrow on the forecast for this weekend and the holiday season.  Plus, a special surprise topic for a more in-depth examination.  On Saturday at 10 AM, I will be doing a special zoom session with my Patrion supporters.  Will talk about the BLOB and the effects on local weather, plus answer questions.


  1. Great post about rainshadows! Do you mind updating the link for the model forecasts of the clouds? It doesn't seem to be working.

  2. Winds from the NW? Don't understand. I show our winds to be from the S/SE. Have been for weeks, and predicted to continue through the month. Perhaps you could explain.

    1. dcp what "winds" are you referring to? The winds that help create the rain shadows are never in the same direction for very long - a few hours perhaps, but not for days or weeks.

    2. IDK. Forecast is for southerly winds for the remainder of Dec. I've camped at the Pass the past few weekends, very clear winds from the SE. Winds from the NW would bring cool temps, but we are above average every day.
      Think of summer. Pesistent high pressure certainly keeps the winds consistent from the NE. Happens in winter too.
      I just don't remember winds from the NW recently. Maybe I missed it.
      FYI I simply checked, shows S/SE winds until Jan.

  3. Interestingly, the number two city on the list of most depressed was Phoenix which certainly doesn't suffer from a lack of sun.

    1. Must be "the dismal state of their municipal leadership"

  4. Bremerton was mostly sunny most of the day, even Acuweather didn't catch that. I did a longer run, and it was glorious - but all mountains east and west shrouded. Incidentally older people do better, ala depression. I think one of the reasons is that you can go outdoors whenever there is a weather break, it is an unusual day when there isn't at least one. Being indoors at a school or office 8-4 means no good outdoor time.

  5. Great post. My daughter is one of those who really suffers during the winter here. I love the very last line!

  6. Please blog all your posts. I don't bother with podcasts -- I can read a lot faster than you can talk, and I study graphics at whatever pace I want. Miss the blogs!


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

Rain without Clouds, the Upcoming Cooling, and Strong Leeside Winds: All in My New Podcast

The radar image this morning at 5:30 AM showed rain...some heavy... offshore. As shown in the satellite image at the same time, much of that...