For a topic with such inherent numerical precision, weather leads journalists astray with a depressing frequency.
A major culprit is that media reports about weather often veer into matters of climate, which is altogether different. Think of it this way — even deserts, which are defined by their lack of rainfall, occasionally get doused by a downpour. That single damp day is weather. The many dry months before and after are climate. One wet day does not mean the desert’s climate is not arid.
The tendency for reporters to confuse weather with climate also contributes to their overreliance on generalizations and stereotypes, which leads to stories ranging from the slightly exaggerated to the outright misleading.
Probably the most common, and most egregious, example of the latter phenomenon is the “It rains all the time in Oregon” myth.
The reality, as even a brief bout of research will show, is that the majority of Oregon is actually drier than much of the rest of the U.S.
Indeed, the section of Oregon that lies east of the Cascade Mountains — which is something like two-thirds of the state’s acreage — has much more in common, climatically, with a desert than with a rainforest.
Areas west of the Cascades are certainly soggier, which is the source of the state’s saturated reputation.
But even that reputation, if not completely unfounded, has still become infected, through repetition, with hyperbole.
Both Portland and Salem, for instance, get less rainfall on average than several major cities, none of which is renowned for being abnormally moist.
Here are the average yearly precipitation totals (a combination of rain and melted snow):
• Portland, 37.1 inches
• Salem, 39.4 inches
• New York City, 44.9 inches
• Philadelphia, 41.6 inches
• St. Louis, 41.0 inches
• Washington, D.C., 39.7 inches
• Boston, 43.8 inches
It’s true that Portland and Salem are frequently rained upon from late autumn through mid spring. But I believe most people who aren’t familiar with the Willamette Valley’s climate, but who base their assumptions on the widespread canard about Oregon’s drippy nature, presume they ought to pack an umbrella if they’re planning a trip, regardless of the season.
They would be wrong.
(And, if they visit during the summer, probably annoyed about the umbrella taking up vital suitcase space.)
The reality is that the Willamette Valley is quite a dry place during most of the summer — much drier, certainly, than any of those cities I listed previously.
As of today, neither Portland nor Salem has had measurable rainfall since June 16 — a span of 55 days, which would be extraordinarily unusual in any major city from the Great Plains to the East Coast.
Following are the average rainfall totals for the three-month period, June, July and August:
• Portland, 2.91 inches
• Salem, 2.22 inches
• New York City, 12.68 inches
• Philadelphia, 11.5 inches
• St. Louis, 10.64 inches
• Washington, D.C., 10.23 inches
• Boston, 9.65 inches
Oregon’s reputation for rain is so ingrained that I doubt the reality will ever supplant the myth, or even chip away much at its solidity.
But I was reminded during the recent heatwave that rainfall is not the only meteorological matter in which Oregon, and the Willamette Valley in particular, doesn’t quite live up to its acclaim.
The issue here is temperature.
A story from The Associated Press about the spell of hot weather contained this phrase: “the Pacific Northwest, a region famous for cool weather...”
Notwithstanding that most geographers would say the Pacific Northwest includes the parts of Oregon and Washington east of the Cascades — a region that is both much warmer and drier than the west side — I don’t believe the climatic records justify describing even the Willamette Valley, which is what the AP story focused on, as notably “cool.”
The story made no outlandish claims, to be sure. The news service included a couple of hedging adjectives in the story to accentuate its noncommittal nature — “even July and August are relatively mild months,” and “the normally temperate cities.”
But the gist of the story is that temperatures that exceed 105 degrees constitute a special sort of crisis for Northwest cities such as Portland because those cities normally are significantly cooler than most of the rest of the nation.
I think this is misleading.
Except in the Southwest and parts of Texas, heatwaves with multiple 100-plus-degree days typically qualify as news in any major American city.
Climate records suggest to me that the AP indulged in hyperbole — of a minor sort, to be sure — in trying to depict the Willamette Valley as a place where air conditioners are all but superfluous.
Portland and Salem typically have cooler summer temperatures than the big cities I cited earlier. But the difference, it seems to me, is not so dramatic as the AP’s rather breathless prose implies.
The numbers — average daily high temperatures, July followed by August (I’ve swapped a couple of cities from the previous comparisons):
• Portland, 80.1, 80.0
• Salem, 81.9, 81.9
• New York City, 84.2, 82.4
• Philadelphia, 85.5, 84.0
• Chicago, 83.5, 81.2
• Los Angeles, 83.8, 84.8
I have used a lot of numbers in this column — more numbers, certainly, than the AP and other media sources prefer to include lest readers’ eyes glaze over.
That’s a worthwhile goal, to be sure. But I don’t believe that trying to achieve that goal excuses the tactic of larding news stories with general descriptions — and in particular ones which obviously mislead readers — when the judicious use of hard numbers can tell a more complete, if perhaps not quite so compelling, tale.
I don’t mean to demean the AP, which is an immensely capable newsgathering operation.
And to its credit, the heatwave story attempted to clarify the nature of the Willamette Valley’s climate, noting that the area is known for its “fall, winter and spring rainy seasons.”
Compared with such tropes as “Oregon, where it rains a lot,” that description counts as noteworthy progress.
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This summer has been nothing if not consistent in its, well, summeriness.
As of Thursday the temperature at the Baker City Airport had topped 90 on 14 straight days. And we haven’t had a day cooler than 80 since June 28.
This persistent weather pattern has forced me, in deference to conflicts between my work and sleep schedules and my compulsion to walk, to spend a considerable number of hours ambling about town during the heat of the day. Which in turn has prompted me to plumb the depths of my mp3 player for seasonally appropriate songs.
I have over these broiling weeks and miles assembled a list of my favorite songs that either explicitly celebrate summer, or that seem to me to represent the season, either lyrically or because the music has a jubilance that strikes me as uniquely suited for summer listening. I concocted two lists, actually — my top 5 songs with “summer” in the title, and 5 others without.
• Top 5 “summer” songs: “Summer,” by War; “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” Sly and the Family Stone; “Sunny Afternoon,” the Kinks; “Summer Song,” Chad and Jeremy; “Summer in the City,” The Lovin’ Spoonful.
• Top 5 others: “Good Vibrations,” the Beach Boys; “Beach Baby,” First Class; “Vacation,” the Go-Gos; “Sunday Will Never Be the Same,” Spanky and Our Gang; “Sweet City Woman,” the Stampeders.
My ears are beginning to tire of some of these songs after repeated listenings. Although the banjo riff in “Sweet City Woman” and the bongos in “Summer” never seem to get stale.
If you have a few summer favorites that might enliven my steamy strolls, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.