Coastal California’s seasons explained

I just posted this picture on Flickr. I took it yesterday in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park after a visit to UCSF Medical Center. The morning was misty and cold, the grass and trees a delightful winter green.

Winter green?

DSC_0093 walk in GGPark copy

Many other flickr photographers (from the Northern Hemisphere anyway) are posting pictures of ice storms, whiteouts, buried snow plows, and barren windswept fields. And here come the Californians showing snapshots of green.

California’s coastal winterscapes can drive the ice-bound crazy. Once again we’re seen as Violating All The Rules and Just Not Making Any Sense. But there is a logic to our seasons, even if it’s obscure. It helps to remember that the planet’s largest heat-sink (aka the Pacific Ocean) is just to our left.

So as a service for those who just don’t get all this green, here’s a short guide to our seasons.


Every hillside is green. A ridiculous, Irish/New Zealand green. So green your eyes hurt looking at it, especially when the sun shines. Green? In the land of perpetual drought?

The sky is blue unless its raining or the tail of one of the many storms pounding the Pacific Northwest lingers overhead. The fog vanished weeks ago and for a few months the coast is warmer and sunnier than inland.

Temperature: if the current air mass comes from Alaska, cold. If it comes from Hawaii, not-so-cold. Hawaiian air brings more rain than the Alaska variety; something about warmer air holding more moisture. But if the sun’s out, it doesn’t matter whose air we’re breathing. it’s glorious.

Rain: yeah, it rains. It’s rarely a bother, though our weather forecasters go apocalyptic when it happens and we all dutifully complain, even in drought years (most of them) when we shouldn’t. You do hear of the occasional flood when our rivers wake up or of houses rolling off cliffs but no one worries unless it’s our back yard.

To be fair, we do feel winter’s gloom. Short days and cold nights; some storms last for days (when that happens we say the “storm gates” are open), and we suffer mightily from the California variety of Seasonal Affective Disorder when we have to go to the gym rather than play outside. When that happens we take our antidepressants.

But then we turn on the TV or talk to a relative somewhere in the forsaken Back There and we chant our praises to the goddess for letting us live here.


The sky is a shocking cobalt blue except when it rains or the economy booms and everybody’s commuting.

Rainy days in Spring are technically called “Winter”. California seasons are guided by but not bound to the calendar; that would be limiting which of course is a no-no in the Golden State. One wet day causes little worry – we tell ourselves it’ll save us from drought. And Spring is guaranteed to be back the next day: we put it in our Constitution. During the rare times Spring rains do go on for days we are outraged and scream at Sacramento.

Plants sprout and grow frantically; they know what Summer means (see below) and they’re in a hurry. Massive clouds of pollen spew from everything. Antidepressant sales drop, antihistamine sales skyrocket.

Temperatures are all over the place. 50F highs one week, 70s the next. There are even days – usually in batches of three (that ocean influence; I’ll spare the details) – when temps hit the 90s. When this happens we are convinced we are dying.

Towards the end of Spring bits of Summer appear as the first banks of fog cascade over the hills. It is a beautiful spectacle, but it makes us forget what Summer is really like.

As the rains end, the green hills, thick with tall grasses, fade to brown – “golden” if you’ve been here longer than five years.

As foggy days become the norm, plants stop growing, cats and dogs with their Spring-thinned coats dive under blankets and we refill our antidepressant prescriptions.


Oh dreaded Summer. Unremitting fog. Gray days, icy nights. Week after week. From mid-June through August. Especially August. Always August.

Mark Twain may not have said “The coldest winter I’ve ever spent was a summer in San Francisco” but somebody did. Bone-chilling cold. Go five miles inland though and you can poach eggs on the sidewalk. Travel between the two too often and the shock to the body can be fatal.

Not a drop of rain falls within hundreds of miles.

The hills are parched. Even evergreen oaks and pines fade to gray in the long dry summer. If you water plants so they don’t die they stop growing anyway: it’s too cold and sunless. You won’t believe it till you see it, but plants can sulk.

Cats and dogs grow another winter coat. They sleep and grouch a lot, as do humans (grouch and sleep that is; not sure about our coats).

Every August I check the temperature in Nome, Alaska. It’s always warmer than San Francisco.

Sales of antidepressants are through the roof.

San Franciscans love our fog, but there’s no getting around it: August Summer here sucks.


“Spectacular” doesn’t begin to describe this most beautiful of Coastal California seasons – if you don’t count the fires. (Though they can be pretty spectacular too.)

Again, shock-blue skies. The frostbitten tourists leave (too much time spent in T-shirts and shorts during August) and the really fine weather arrives.

Day temperatures are high 60s to 70s. Sunsets are great, the light breathtaking and the fog remains respectfully off shore.

Plants – if watered during the sulky months – burst with joy and go through a second frantic growing and flowering.

Dogs frolic in the parks, cats lounge in the sun and we humans flush our antidepressants down the toilet and resume the jogging and bicycling we started in Spring. We are happy.

Unless our house is on one of those brown, tinderbox hills, then we spend most of the season obsessing about fire.

Sometime in October it rains. Many moan, not wanting to give up the Awesome Season, but a few are relieved. They’re worn out from performing rain dances to stave off the water rationing our whiny weather people and apocalyptic politicians have been threatening all year.

These first rains make our roads slippery but they also wash grime and dust off buildings and plants which make everything look better. The fire season ends.

And in Autumn the most amazing thing happens, the very definition of seasons in Coastal California: within days of the very first rain the dead brown grasses on the hills morph into those impossible fluorescent greens. If the rain continues the grasses thicken and stay green well into April.

And the seasons cycle.


Some say California has only two seasons: a green one called Winter and a brown (golden!) one called Summer. Those are the most easily recognized but they’re the least subtle – or satisfying.

If you just look at the world in binary you miss out on the amazing shades that come between 0 and 1. Here, those shades are brown-to-green and green-to-brown, also known as our really great seasons, Autumn and Spring.

Binary thinking also might cause you to accidentally visit in August, when you’d really be more comfortable in Northern Alaska.

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