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The Weather of the Pacific Northwest

By Cliff Mass

Review By Ian McKendry

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 165 Spring 2010  | p. 120-2

Weather is a favourite topic of conversation in most places but perhaps nowhere more so than along the northwest coast of North America, a region that prides itself on a rich “outdoors” recreational culture and where storm-watching is considered a romantic winter pastime. Here, storms emanating from the expansive Pacific basin (and occasionally cold dry air masses from the continental interior) interact in complicated ways with mountainous coastal terrain. This is a weather forecaster’s nightmare: sparse information from the large “data void” to the west and the complex effects of inlets, valleys, and mountains give the weather an intensely local character. 

In this richly illustrated book (281 colour illustrations), Cliff Mass draws on his distinguished research career in the Puget Sound area to provide a fascinating account of the weather and climate of the region. His stated objectives are “to provide a description of Northwest weather that is both accessible to the layperson and scientifically accurate” (8). In so doing, he “describes the weather of the region stretching from southern British Columbia to the California Border and from the western slopes of the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean” (ibid.). In thirteen chapters, Mass covers the vast array of meteorological phenomena observed in the region in a highly approachable style that is always supported by specific examples and photographs (including rare photos of tornadoes). Covered in separate chapters are floods, snow storms and ice storms, windstorms, sea breezes, land breezes and slope winds, mountain-related phenomena, and even optical phenomena such as mirages that give the impression of “floating ferries.” The Weather of the Pacific Northwest ends with a discussion of the challenges of weather forecasting in the region, climate change and variability, and, finally, a useful chapter entitled “Reading the Pacific Northwest Skies” for those who enjoy the outdoors. With this material in hand, anyone can become an informed armchair weather forecaster. 

This is truly an excellent book, and it would be equally at home on the coffee table, the bookshelves of people in a wide variety of weather-sensitive occupations (e.g., fishing, forestry, farming, and construction, to name but a few); in the backpacks of climbers, hikers, sailors and pilots; or even on the desks of undergraduate and graduate students. At its modest price, and in the absence of really useful, region-specific textbooks, I would suggest that there is enough in this interesting and accessible book to make it a legitimate choice as a required text in BC undergraduate weather and climate courses. 

If there is a criticism of this book, it lies in its parochialism. Although entitled The Weather of the Pacific Northwest the focus is undoubtedly the Puget Sound area and wider Washington State. Most definitions of “Pacific Northwest” are considerably broader in geographical scope and incorporate the wide coastal swath extending from northern California to southern Alaska and as far east as Montana and Idaho. It is fair to say that the meteorological phenomena Mass describes are indeed representative of the much wider region. However, a much wider market for this book (e.g., southern British Columbia) might have been opened up by the addition of just a few Canadian examples. A case in point is the 15 December 2006 windstorm that devastated Vancouver’s Stanley Park. This event is described in great detail, but its impact north of the 49th parallel is ignored (1001). Further to this point, an enormous amount of research has been conducted in southwestern British Columbia, and it is conspicuously omitted from the list of research literature on Pacific Northwest weather (269-73). Given this, the book might have been more appropriately entitled The Weather of Washington State

Geographical scope aside, Cliff Mass has produced a richly illustrated book that is at once entertaining, educational, and authoritative. It will no doubt become the standard to which other such books are compared, and deservedly so.


PDF – Book Reviews, BC Studies 165, Spring 2010