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“Out of the refrigerator, into the frying pan” – weather year 2019 marked by extremes

Shortly after the big snows happened in February, residents of the Puget Sound region were already hearing how the winter storms would be an event to remember and tell their grandchildren about.

As we wrap up 2019, KNKX weather expert Cliff Mass says that event still stands out as the biggest one of the year — despite a lot of other features that add up to a year of extremes.

“It was the coldest, snowiest February that we’ve ever had in western Washington,” says Mass, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington.

“Here in Seattle for instance, we had several snow storms and not only did we have the record-breaking amount of snow in February (20.2 inches at SeaTac by month’s end,) but we had the record cold for the whole month. So the snow just held in, day after day.”

The next most extraordinary feature of the year came right on the heels of February, in March.

“We went out of the refrigerator, into the frying pan,” Mass says.  “We switched from colder than normal to a heat wave on the 19th and 20th of March — where Seattle got to 80 degrees and even down to the coast, they got warm.”

Mass says this all had to do with high pressure in the atmosphere. When it was offshore, it pulled colder air into the region. Then it shifted inland, causing offshore flow that descended the west side of the Cascades, with the air compressing and getting warmer along the way.

The warm winds of March caused another unusual trait: wildfires west of the Cascade mountains in March. The early start to the fire season had many people worrying about the coming summer and the possibility of a repeat of “Smokemageddon.”

It didn’t happen. In fact, Mass says the major summer wildfires were fewer than normal because there was a general lack of heat waves and precipitation was near normal.

The fall was marked by another set of extremes: a very wet September, followed by a record dry November. Then, December started with that dry spell continuing, for nearly three weeks. But then it switched again, as atmospheric river conditions returned to the region and the spigots turned on.  

The big event at year end: record rainfall in a day on December 20th, with 3-5 inches at a number of locations around Puget Sound. That also wound up being the darkest day ever recorded at the University of Washington.

“The darkest day in decades,” Mass says. “We were near the solstice, so the sun was weak. And then this atmospheric river had so much cloudiness and precipitation, it prevented the light from getting through.”

Now, the days are getting longer. But Mass says all bets are still off for the year ahead.

“We have a neutral (to weak) El Niño situation,” he says. “Anything goes.  So, I’m looking forward to a relatively normal overall winter. But extreme conditions could happen, as they often do in this kind of year.”

Weather with Cliff Mass airs at 9:02 a.m. Friday, right after BirdNote, and twice on Friday afternoons during All Things Considered. The feature is hosted by KNKX environment reporter Bellamy Pailthorp. Cliff Mass is a University of Washington professor of atmospheric sciences, a renowned Seattle weather prognosticator, anda popular weather blogger. You can also subscribe to podcasts of Weather with Cliff Mass shows, viaiTunes or Google Play.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to