June was lovely. What has been my least favorite month nearly every year since I graduated college turned out to not be so bad in 2016. The sun was shining nearly every day; the city was warm. The typical June Gloom of the California coast gave San Francisco a miss. I spent many days outside, at the beach, wandering the streets as I’m wont to do. It continued through the first half of July, where thousands of others joined me on the streets across town as the sun bathed our fair city in an unexpected aura.
My second summer in San Francisco was shaping up to be a lot like the first. A warm, if a bit breezy and relatively cool compared to a “normal” summer, generally sunny affair. Last year I spent many weekend days from June through September lounging at the beach. That’s Ocean Beach, a place many San Franciscans avoid due to its typically unwelcoming wind and clouds, its cold and deadly water, and its general lack of attractions and amenities compared with a typical beach town. Some days in 2015, the strand was swarming with people, even down south of the park where I live.
My neighborhood has a reputation for being a cold, dreary place. Indeed, even the name “Sunset” is ironic in that half of the time, you can’t even see one. Last year’s incredible weather had lowered my expectations of getting socked in by fog summer day in and day out. I had really lucked out with picking my little beach cabin.
These days, there are a lot of amateur meteorologists in California. Now in the fifth or sixth year of a drought, depending on who you ask, those environmentally-obsessed of us have taken to scanning forecasts and weather patterns for any sign of coming rain. In 2014, it was predicted we’d likely have an El Niño event for the winter. None came, although there was one day of insane rain in December, mixed in with the typical drizzle of Northern California winter. Last year, things had taken a turn for the optimistic — the Pacific Ocean warmed in such a way as to produce what was expected to be the most significant El Niño in years.
Long story short, it was pretty good. We had rain from January to April, including a seemingly-continuous torrent in March, that filled up our reservoirs and gave the suffering terrain a much needed drink and a wash.
But here’s the thing: El Niño is not typical. The relative warmth of the ocean prevented the full development of a San Francisco summer. When cold Pacific water meets moving humid oceanic air, a layer of condensation forms. When the temperature differential between two geographic areas is significant, wind is summoned to flow from areas of high pressure to low. When these two conditions align, as they had been previously limited from doing, the cool marine fog from the Pacific is pushed inland toward the warm, heated earth of California. In San Francisco, the geography of the city helps aid this movement, as the Golden Gate provides a path of most admittance. The rest of the city falls under its cover as collateral.
Which brings me to today. It’s the end of August. There’s no El Niño this year. There’s just fog, and there has been every day since the end of July. From my house in San Francisco’s Sunset neighborhood, I have not seen the sun since then. There was a brief period yesterday where blue sky shone through, but it was fleeting. It was so remarkable, however, that I had to step outside to take a photo. It was the only time I can recall seeing the sky this month from home.
Most mornings my car is drenched in droplets, the street shiny with moisture. Sometimes it is actually raining, in a Seattle kind of way. I go to work every morning wearing some kind of extra layer, only to shed it once I arrive at the office. Almost without fail, the sky clears up beyond Daly City, where the freeway emerges into the northern reaches of Silicon Valley.
Fog is a nice blanket — a hug from the ocean. I’m comforted by the fact that I know the Pacific is just down the street. I can watch the nebulous shapes roll by the trees in the day, or through the illumination of streetlights at night, and feel like everything is going to be okay. It’s the days when the fog is high, in the form of an overcast, grey sky, that I go crazy.
I’ve always been solar powered. Winters back home in New York were interminable — from October to April there was incessant blandness, aided only by the common appearance of a peaceful snowfall or a once-in-awhile blue sky. When spring arrived though, there was nothing better than the sweet relief of sunlight and the coming summer’s warmth. And that’s the idea that keeps me going now, albeit here the reverse is true. Fall in San Francisco is wonderful, a welcome respite from the inhospitable cold of summer. We average over 70°F for the only time all year, the days are clear, and those of us lying dormant under the suffocating overcast can come back to life as it was weeks ago. The unending grey of August fog has worn me out.
I think it’s about time I took a vacation from the coldest summer I’ve spent. Any ideas?