WEATHER »

Peter Feldmann

How Weird Is Our Weather?

Warning: Science Content!


The Independent has, of course, already reported on the strange weather that Santa Barbara has been experiencing over the past few days. Rain, wind, thunder, lightning, hail, and even snow have all been battering the county since Tuesday. But just how weird, Weird SB wants to know, is it?

As the Mythbusters would say, “Warning: Science Content!” It’s not possible to understand how truly weird snow in Santa Barbara is without a brief foray into the mysterious world of meteorology. Having had all three of the major types of precipitation - rain, hail, and snow - in one week, we’ve had some mighty strange meteorological conditions, which beg for an explanation.

Rain occurs when the water vapor present in clouds becomes too heavy to remain aloft. Snow is essentially rain that’s been frozen before it ever falls to the ground, and some rain is actually snow that melted on its way down. In order for snow to actually reach the ground, the temperature has to be near freezing. That’s unusual for Santa Barbara, as a result of two factors: elevation and proximity to the ocean. The higher you go, typically, the colder it gets; that’s why snow-capped mountains are such a cliche.

The ocean is also important in Santa Barbara’s usual lack of snow, as its buffering effect prevents temperatures from dropping to the level necessary for ice crystals to make it all the way to the ground. That’s why our mountains get so little snow; they’re not that high, but their position on the coast has a large effect as well.

Hail is actually both rain and snow at once, and depends on the windiness of the weather to exist. When ice crystals form and begin to fall at the same time that rain is coming down, the crystals can be caught in an updraft and pushed back up into the cloud. As they circulate up and down, they pick up raindrops, which then freeze onto the crystal. Eventually the crystals become too heavy, and come down on the ground as hail.

So what does all this simplified science mean? It means that Santa Barbara has experienced cold weather conditions very unusual for our placement on the coast. The average low temperature recorded for a Santa Barbara January is 45 degrees Fahrenheit; in order for snow to stay on the ground, it has to be thirteen degrees lower than that.

So Santa Barbara is officially thirteen degrees from normal, this week. Doesn’t sound like much, but it’s weird enough to make the front page of another local paper - which, considering it’s much-noted lack of local news, is unusual enough in itself. And very few things are weirder than a snowman on the central coast.

Seen anything strange lately? Let us know about it, and you may see a solution to the mystery here. Contact Elena at weirdsb@gmail.com.

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