Seattle Doesn’t Get As Much Snow As You May Think – Here’s Why

Seattle Doesn’t Get As Much Snow As You May Think – Here’s Why

A winter storm blanketed the Pacific Northwest this week and more is expected in the coming days. The National Weather Service (NWS) - Seattle tweeted on February 9th: 6.4" inch of snow at Sea-Tac yesterday. The weather set-up this week allowed for snow-supporting, cold air in Seattle (graphic below), but there is typically a competing factor that limits snow. The first concept is something called heat capacity. The specific heat or heat capacity of water is very relevant for understanding why Seattle is not as snowy as places further inland or at higher elevations. It points out that water has to absorb 4,184 Joules of heat for the temperature of one kilogram of water to increase 1 degree celsius (°C). Sand requires much less heat to warm up than water. According to the emergency management website of the city of Seattle, Most of the time Seattle's winter weather is controlled by the Pacific Ocean which remains relatively even in temperature throughout the year. Occasionally, however, cold air from the interior of the continent pushes into the Puget Sound region and causes dramatic cold spells, ice and snow. This limits the number of sub-freezing days.

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A winter storm blanketed the Pacific Northwest this week and more is expected in the coming days. The National Weather Service (NWS) – Seattle tweeted on February 9th:

6.4″ inch of snow at Sea-Tac yesterday. New daily record and 2nd most in a single day of the past 20 years. Only exceeded by 6.8″ on January 18. 2012. #wawx

Responding to a question about how many times it has snowed on February 8th in Seattle, NWS pointed out that “since records began 6.4″ in 2019, 2.9″ in 2014, 1.0″ in 1916, 0.4″ in 1957 and 0.1″ in 1904.” Seattle averages just under 6 inches of snow during the winter according to SeatteWeatherBlog.com. It snowed while I was at a weather conference in Seattle several years ago, and the city was clearly excited and nervous about it. The stunning views of snow-capped Mt. Rainier may give you the perception that Seattle is a snowy place, but it is not. The weather set-up this week allowed for snow-supporting, cold air in Seattle (graphic below), but there is typically a competing factor that limits snow. What is it?

Abnormally cold temperatures in Seattle.

In order to answer to this question, we have to review some basic concepts that I recently shared with my students at The University of Georgia. The first concept is something called heat capacity. It is a measure of the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of a body or substance by one degree. If this quantity is given in term of unit mass, it is called specific heat. The specific heat or heat capacity of water is very relevant for understanding why Seattle is not as snowy as places further inland or at higher elevations.

The U.S. Geological Survey Water…

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