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Why Northwest snow can be harder to drive in

Snow at Alderwood Mall. (KTTH listener Fernando, via The Jason Rantz Show)

When Northwest snow prompts complaints — as rare and relatively minimal it can be — other areas known for frosty weather scoff at our dismay. But it turns out, Northwest complaints may have some validity. So critics might want to chill out.

“When we get snow, we often get ice,” said Cliff Mass Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington. “It has to do with the meteorology of our region.”

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During last February’s historic snowstorms, Mass pointed out that the Northwest snow can be a bit different than the dry, fluffy flakes that many other regions are familiar with.

“We tend to be pretty warm and it’s mild here in the winter, so the ground and the roadways are above freezing,” Mass said. “So what happens in many of these occasions is snow falls onto the road, probably wet snow, and it starts melting into this slushy stuff. Then cold air moves in from the north … it freezes this slush into ice.

“That can be not only treacherous and dangerous, but extraordinarily difficult to remove,” he said.

That combination of snowy factors is quite different than the regions naysayers come from, such as the central and eastern portions of the United States. In fact, despite not getting dumped on as much, Northwest road conditions could be more harsh than the Midwest or East Coast counterparts.

“They are much colder during the winter time; the roadways are often below freezing so they start off much colder,” Mass said. “They have  snow … it tends to be this fluffy, powdery snow. So the snow piles up. But typically there is not an ice layer … they have lots of snow, but it’s pretty easy to remove and they generally don’t have this ice layer which makes it miserable around here.”

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On top of that, the Northwest has hills. Of course, hills are everywhere. But Mass argues that it is more often flat in the Midwest, and even the East Coast. Then there is the fact that snow doesn’t pile up as often in the Northwest, which means there is less equipment available.

“So it all comes together to make it difficult around here,” he said.

So sure, your Midwest town may get more snow, more often. But don’t criticize so fast. Your fluffy experience may not hold up to the Northwest’s slick ice.

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