Useful Notes / American Climate
Due to its size, the United States of America experiences a wide range of weather, from the arid deserts of the Southwest to the hot and humid Southeast to the colder northern states. There's also room for the occasional tornado and hurricane to squeeze in there.
Most of the US' weather comes from the polar jet stream, which moves pressure systems through the country from the west to the east, with various curves and twists along the way. Thus, it's not uncommon for storms to move in from the Pacific Northwest and cross all the way to the Atlantic. This can lead to serial severe weather across the entire country, depending on the season.
Along the coasts, weather tends to be more static, while the center of the U.S. experiences a greater range of weather variables.
Note that, when reading measurements, the US uses American Customary Measurements
rather than the metric system. See that page for translating between the two.
In general, the climates can be broken down by region.
Due to the geography, the Northeastnote
generally experiences warm-to-hot summers, with average temperatures in the 80s and low 90s (though triple-digit temperatures usually only come a few days a year), and cold winters, with daily highs ranging from the high 20s to the low 40s and nighttime lows falling into the teens and single digits. Temperatures on the coast are moderated by the Gulf Stream, resulting in cooler summers and warmer winters in such areas, explaining why places like Cape Cod, the Hamptons and the Jersey Shore are such popular getaways. Heading further inland, the high altitude of the Appalachian Mountains produces cooler weather year-round, allowing them to support large winter resorts as well as a number of summer getaways (like the famous Borscht Belt
resorts of the Catskills).
Precipitation averages about 46 inches year-round in the region, including both rain and snow. The latter tends to vary by area, largely due to the Great Lakes — the "lake effect" produces incredibly heavy snowfall of up to 200 inches per year, relegated to thin strips along the lakeside of upstate New York
and northeastern Pennsylvania (including the cities of Erie, Buffalo and Rochester). Along the coast, there is the potential for ocean storms. Winter brings Nor'easters, powerful blizzards with tropical storm-force winds and precipitation (and even shape◊
) to match — the terms "Snowmageddon", "Snowpocalypse" and "Snowzilla
" are all known to people on the East Coast. Hurricanes during the summer are less common, and those that make it to the Northeast have usually downgraded to a Category 1 or tropical storm level due to the cooler waters.note
However, storms as big as Category 3 aren't unheard of (the last one hit Long Island and Connecticut in 1938), and New York City
is considered to be at very high risk for such a storm — the aforementioned 1938 hurricane made landfall just sixty miles east of the city.
Also of note is Mount Washington in New Hampshire, the tallest peak in the northeastern US at 6288 ft., which advertises itself as experiencing the worst weather in the world. While this is most definitely not the case, Mount Washington was the site of the highest directly measured wind speed at 231 mph.
experiences a generally subtropical climate, with hot, humid summers with daytime temperatures in the 90s and cool winters with highs typically running from the high 40s to the low 60s. During the summer, it's not uncommon for the daily highs to break into the triple digits. It's no coincidence that the boom of many "Sun Belt" cities, and with it the demographic transition to the South and West (and all the political consequences
of that), coincided with the invention and widespread adoption of air conditioning — while cold Northern winters could be easily beat with such low-tech means as warm clothing, heavy blankets, and fireplaces, their equivalents for cooling one off in the hot Southern summer (parasols, loose clothing, spicy foodnote
) aren't nearly as effective.
Though the Appalachian and Ozark Mountains get regular winter snowfall, as do Kentucky (which borders the Midwest), parts of Tennessee, and the Chesapeake Bay area (which borders the Northeast), snow of greater than six inches is rare in the Deep South or the lowlands south of Virginia. Here◊
is a county-by-county map of the amount of snow it takes to get school districts to cancel classes; south of Richmond, Virginia and outside Appalachia, any snow will usually suffice. This typically leads to a lot of ribbing from Northerners about how Southerners can't drive in the snow (most recently seen when two inches of snow shut down Atlanta
in 2014), though as the ground there rarely gets below freezing, Southern roads tend to have layers of black ice beneath their shallow snows
. The fact that Sun Belt cities tend to be more sprawling and reliant on automobiles likewise produces more opportunities for accidents, to say nothing of the fact that many areas have sizable populations living on steep, twisty mountain roads, which are bad enough in the best of circumstances, but when it's icy, muddy, and being driven on by a large, top-heavy school bus filled with small children, you can understand the "better safe than sorry" mentality. It's also why Southern roadways are usually much smoother to drive on than their Northern counterparts — it usually doesn't get cold enough for the water seeping into the ground to freeze and open cracks and potholes.
Florida and the Gulf Coast, meanwhile, almost never get truly cold even in the winter. The last snowfall in New Orleans
was in 2008, Miami
has only seen one recorded snowfall
in its entire history (in 1977), and frosts are rare enough in Florida that the state is quite famously able to support the growing of citrus fruits year-round. Needless to say, the first day when most of the country gets temperatures below freezing is often referred to as "National Hate Florida Day"
The average yearly rainfall is about 60 inches, increasing towards the Gulf of Mexico, though the further westward you travel, the hotter, drier, and more arid it becomes, particularly in the grasslands of western Texas and Oklahoma. On the other side, the further south you go, particularly in Florida, the weather becomes more tropical and wet.
This region is most at risk for both tornadoes (year-round) and hurricanes (late summer and fall), with about 40 deaths per year for the former, and about 90 deaths per year for the latter.note
There's also been recent concern with drought and excessive heat waves — the summer of 2011 seeing broken heat records across the entire region, with Savannah, GA recording 56 days of 100+ degrees in a row, Oklahoma City recording 64 days, and San Angelo, TX recording 98 days. Not helping on the drought front is the rapid growth and development of the region's population, which has placed increasing pressure on existing reservoirs.
Western Texas is more like the Southwest climatewise, especially around El Paso, and the northern parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Kentucky, and the western part of West Virginia overlap into the Midwest climatewise. Also, Maryland and the northern part of West Virginia overlap into the Northeast climate.
can be broken into two parts. The eastern half, huddled around the Great Lakes, enjoys a continental climate with similar conditions to the Northeast, including problems with lake effect snow. Michigan
, surrounded by lakes on three sides, is especially hard-hit from this, enough to make speaking the words "lake effect" during winter a regional Brown Note
; on the other hand, the lake effect actually keeps Michigan substantially warmer
in the winter (see Snow Means Cold
for why) and much cooler in the summertime. It also provides inordinate amounts of rainfall (which benefits—or rather causes—Michigan's massive fruit industry as a side effect.note
) Rainfall averages about 35 inches, slightly less than the Northeast due to its distance from the ocean.
The western half of the region, on the Great Plains, is much more arid, getting an average of just 15 inches of precipitation per year, with generally warmer summers and colder winters than its eastern counterpart due to the flatter terrain. note
This also allows for strong blizzards in the winter. Back in the 19th century, explorers called the Great Plains the "Great American Desert", seeing it as too dry and barren to support much habitation, and even today, much agriculture is reliant on aquifers and rivers.
Southern Missouri overlaps with the South climatewise.
The entire region is also regularly hit by tornadoes in the summer, more so than the Southeast, but house construction methods used in the Southeast enable even a weak
tornado to kill dozens of people, but the tornadic activity in the midwest produces stronger
tornadoes, hence the region's nickname of "Tornado Alley"
is an overall dry region that can be split into two areas: the lowlands and deserts on one hand, and the uplands and mountains on the other. In the lowlands of Arizona, New Mexico, southern and western Utah, Nevada, and inland southern California, summer temperatures in the triple digits are the norm, and temperatures in the 110s and even 120s are not unheard of. The lack of humidity is a saving grace in many such areas, producing little added heat index. There is also a brief "monsoon season" (less intense than the classic Indian monsoon, but caused by similar processes) during the late summer, when subtropical moisture (and the occasional hurricane or tropical storm remnant) moves in from the south.
The mountainous uplands, meanwhile, experience warm summers and cold, snowy winters. The Rocky Mountains in Colorado are home to many of America's premier winter resorts, although New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah are also known to experience very cold winters up in the mountains. (Flagstaff, Arizona, at an elevation of about 6,900 feet, goes over 200 days a year with low temperatures below freezing, the highest number of days in the nation outside Alaska.)
Around the Great Salt Lake in northern Utah, the same "lake effect" that occurs around the Great Lakes occurs in the areas around Ogden and Salt Lake City. The lake is small enough to warm very rapidly, and saline enough that it doesn't freeze over, and furthermore the Wasatch Range to the east traps any storms that come off of the lake. Between September and May, this produces massive blizzards that are sometimes known as "The Greatest Snow on Earth".
strong mountain winds that blow over the mountain tops and warm the leeward side to startlingly high temperatures (records of raising the temperature nearly 100°F is not unheard of), are found in the more mountainous areas, particularly in Colorado. High snowfall and blizzards are also a problem in the mountains.
Eastern Colorado is more like the Great Plains in both climate and geography.
This entire region is particularly susceptible to drought, leading to water rights issues, something that has sparked political fights between and within states in the past. In addition, southern California sometimes experiences Santa Ana winds, warm dry winds from the northeast which cause unseasonably warm temperatures, increased wildfire danger, and are sometimes strong enough to cause wind damage.
has two main climates, divided by the Cascade Mountains running through central Washington and Oregon and the Sierra Nevada range in northeastern California. To the east, summers ranging from warm to incredibly hot (occasionally in the triple digits in some areas) are paired with bitterly cold winters, and temperatures in the negatives are common. Rainfall is very light — Spokane, Washington and Cheyenne, Wyoming, two of the "wetter" cities in the area, receive only about 15 inches of precipitation per year, and much of eastern Oregon and southern Idaho are either arid or semi-arid. This area has problems with blizzards and foehn winds, though water rights tend to overshadow these in the warmer seasons.
The western portion is much rainier
, thanks to the mountains keeping the moist air from moving eastward (and leading to the water rights problems to the east). Both summers and winters are mild, with summer temperatures often hovering in the 70s and winter temperatures rarely falling below 40. Snow isn't unheard of, but not particularly common, excluding the more mountainous areas. Whereas the areas east of the mountains are dry, the areas to the west are almost stereotypically wet; Seattle
are always depicted as exceptionally rainynote
, while San Francisco
's fog is almost as much a part of the city's image as cable cars, the Golden Gate Bridge, tie-dye Volkswagens
and rainbow flags
The Rocky Mountain Region
The Rocky Mountain Regionnote
, a region that overlaps the Southwest and Northwest regions, experiences cold, snowy winters.
California overlaps the Northwest and Southwest regions climatewise.
The Central Valley and the Sierra Nevada foothills experience hot, dry summers and mild to cool winters. The summer temperatures often soar into the 90s and triple digits. The winter temperatures sometimes drop below 30 degrees F at night, but don't drop below 20 degrees F outside of record lows. The Sacramento Valley is a little wetter than the San Joaquin Valley.
The coastal areas of central-to-southern California, as well as the Central Valley and the Sierra Nevada foothills, have a climate that is unique in the nation. Called a "Mediterranean" climate after the largest area in the world to possess it, it is characterized by dry summers, wet winters, and mild temperatures either year-round or from mid-fall to mid-spring. Outside California, Southern Oregon, and the Mediterranean, it is only found in a few other places worldwide, such as Santiago
, Cape Town
, Adelaide and Perth
. Of course, since Hollywood
happens to be located in this tiny region, filmmakers often assume that this is what it's like in most parts of the world, leading to the trope It's Always Spring
Alaska and Hawai'i
The non-continental states enjoy fairly static weather patterns.
panhandle enjoys a climate not unlike the western part of the Northwest, though with more snow and about ten degrees cooler due to the higher latitude. However, the further north and further inland you go, the colder it gets. A majority of the state experiences sub-arctic conditions, with cold summers and freezing winters. Temperatures in the negatives are the norm, with summer temperatures barely warming above freezing in the northern regions of the state. Even the city of Anchorage, located along the southern coast and having a mild urban heat island effect, has experienced temperatures below freezing in every month other than July, and the average winter high temperature is in the low 20s. Overall, Alaska holds the coldest temperature records for all of the months (excluding July and August), as well as the lowest temperature recorded in North America at -80°F. It is very much the American Siberia, right down to conspiracy theories claiming that the shadow government is building a gulag-esque concentration camp just outside of Fairbanks.
Cold is the worst aspect of Alaska's climate, with strong winter storms in the Bering Sea bring in white-out conditions and large ocean waves.
In contrast, Hawai'i
enjoys a tropical climate with warm summers and warm winters, though it's less humid than many other tropical regions. Hawai'i is the only state in the U.S. to not record a sub-freezing temperature, though snow isn't unheard of on the slopes of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. At the same time, temperatures above 100°F are also unheard of. note
The state has the second highest rainfall average at 460 inches per year, though due to the mountainous features, dry portions on the islands are also commonplace.
Hurricanes aren't common, but there have been instances, with the most recent being Hurricane Iniki in 1992. Tornadoes are also not commonplace, but still have happened, with 40 total instances recorded since 1950. In contrast, flash flooding and mudslides are a much larger problem for the state.
Most prominent is America's propensity for severe weather, with tornadoes being the most unique.
The U.S. has the highest amount of tornadoes in the world, typically around 1,300 per year. They are most common in the eastern half of the U.S., though every state has had at least 7 tornadoes (Alaska is the least at risk) since 1950. Texas has the highest concentration of tornadoes overall, though the state with the most tornadoes per square mile is Florida. When it comes to strong tornadoes (F/EF-3 and higher), Oklahoma tops the list. However, due to less measures taken in tornado safety (hurricanes are generally considered a more serious threat and safety measures are geared towards those storms rather than tornadoes), the Southeast is typically the worst hit in terms of damage costs and deaths.
Tornadoes are worst in the spring and early summer, though it is important to note that there isn't a "tornado season," as they happen year round, just in different geographical regions. During the winter months, tornadoes are most frequent in the Southeast, particularly in February and March, before shifting to the Plains in spring, and then moving into the Midwest and Great Lakes region during the summer months.
During the late summer and fall, hurricanes are the biggest threat, affecting all of the Gulf states and the Eastern shoreboard. Florida gets the short end of the stick, getting hit on both sides by 40% of all hurricanes. Texas isn't far behind, with a total of 83% of category 4+ hurricanes hitting either Texas or Florida. In total, only about 2 hurricanes hit the U.S. per year, but tend to cause more cost in damages and death than tornadoes.
Other severe weather events include Nor'easters, heat/cold waves, and flooding. While the former is region-specific, affecting the Atlantic side of the U.S., the latter two are much less choosy. Because of this, the U.S. has a much greater deathtoll from these (960 and 84, respectively). However, in general, Nor'easters have a greater reach, causing vast damage from the Gulf states to eastern Canada.