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Updated Sunday, December 30, 2012 at 10:46 PM

Sayonara to sopping year — with one big dry spell

By Sandi Doughton
Seattle Times science reporter

The year 2012 packed its most memorable weather punch in January, with lowland snow and an ice storm that left more than a quarter of a million households across Western Washington without power.

The final month of the year landed several notable jabs as well, with stupendous snow at area ski resorts and so many rainy days around Puget Sound that even meteorologists got depressed.

"This has been one of the most dismal periods I've ever seen here," said Cliff Mass, of the University of Washington's Department of Atmospheric Sciences.

National Weather Service statistics back up the sentiment. Measurable precipitation fell on 27 days in December, setting a new benchmark for the month.

Since record-keeping started in Seattle in 1891, only two months were more unrelentingly wet, with 28 days of precipitation each.

But in between its icy start and soggy finish, 2012 brought a 48-day dry spell that tickled sun-lovers and had some longtime residents anxiously scanning the sky for clouds.

Overall, though, precipitation trumped solar radiation.

With 48.26 inches at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, 2012 came in seventh on the all-time wettest lineup. March was about twice as damp as usual.

Quillayute, on the northern Washington coast, registered nearly 10 feet of rain through mid-December.

Both Mass and the National Weather Service rank the rare ice storm that gripped much of Western Washington on Jan. 19 as the biggest weather event of the year. Coming on the heels of slushy lowland snow, the freezing rain took forecasters by surprise and encased cars, roads and trees in a glitter rime up to 1.5 inches thick. Falling branches knocked out power across broad swaths of King, Pierce, Thurston and Snohomish counties.

Some people were left in the dark for more than two days, and hotels filled up with power-outage refugees.

Seattle escaped the worst of the ice, which hit hardest in Kent, Auburn, Enumclaw, Fall City and other areas east and south of the city.

One man was killed near Issaquah when a tree fell on his all-terrain vehicle. Branches breaking and tree tops snapping filled the woods with sounds like gunfire.

"We've got all this popping going on; it sounds like deer season around here," one Issaquah resident said at the time.

The National Weather Service estimated total property damage from the storm at $7 million.

February brought a temporary respite, with several days when high temperatures approached 60 degrees.

But spring 2012 was the third in a row with cooler, wetter conditions than normal, said National Weather Service meteorologist Andy Haner.

"I remember wondering by the time we got to the end of June if summer would ever come."

When it finally did, it was with a flourish that seemed out of place for the Pacific Northwest.

In early and mid-July, thunderheads drifted across the Puget Sound region like visitors from the Midwest.

Cool, dry air blowing off the Pacific normally inhibits formation of the towering clouds that spawn thunder and lightning, but thanks to an unusual circulation pattern, the region was treated to some spectacular light shows.

Overnight July 12, the National Weather Service counted more than 500 lightning strikes across Western Washington.

On Friday the 13th, a Renton man and his dog were flung 15 feet across the living room when lightning struck their house, causing the ceiling to burst into flames. Lighting also damaged the computers used to control the Hood Canal Bridge.

No one took much notice when July 23 dawned clear and dry. Two weeks later, it still hadn't rained. But dry spells aren't unusual in the summer, so it wasn't until 40 rainless days had passed that speculation started to mount.

The longest dry spell on record extended 51 days through the summer of 1951. Would 2012 break the record?

Some blamed the drought on Ichiro's jump from the Mariners to the Yankees.

As clouds finally threatened on Sept. 9, blogs and tweets were filled with jokes. When water falls from the sky onto your windshield, some wondered, how do you get it off?

Residents coped just fine with the one-hundredth of an inch of precipitation recorded at Sea-Tac that day — just enough to end the streak at 48 days.

But the spell did set a record for the driest August ever at Sea-Tac. And the dry weather promptly resumed after the streak was broken, extending well into October.

In the midst of the drought, contractors repairing a bridge near Cle Elum sparked what came to be called the Taylor Bridge Fire. The blaze destroyed 61 homes and 200 other structures, and was just one of several wildfires that flared across the state.

Fall dawned cool and wet, with some ski resorts opening before Thanksgiving.

The winter of 2011-12 brought "phenomenal" snow to Crystal Mountain, said marketing director Tiana Enger. The winter of 2012-13 looks equally white so far. "To date this season we are 150 percent above average," Enger said.

Snowpack throughout the Cascades was about 150 percent of normal as the year drew to a close. But heavy snows in December proved deadly east of the crest, where trees laden with snow fell like dominoes along Highway 2 near Stevens Pass.

Two people were killed and four injured when the vehicle they were riding in was crushed. Five people were injured when their car struck a downed tree.

Nearby, hundreds of trees came crashing down in Lake Wenatchee State Park and the surrounding area, destroying playgrounds, closing cross-country ski parks, and cutting off power for thousands of residents.

The mayhem was too much even for the hardy souls who start off every year by jumping into Lake Wenatchee. The 21st Annual Polar Bear Plunge was postponed until later in January.

Waterfront residents in West Seattle and along other parts of Puget Sound found themselves in cold water Dec. 17.

The combination of a winter king tide, a low-pressure system and onshore winds set a high-tide record for Seattle and flooded more than 100 properties.

But 2013 promised to come in on little cat feet. As of Sunday, there was plenty of fog — but no rain — in the Seattle forecast for the next several days.

Information from Seattle Times archives was included. Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com


STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Clouds are reflected in puddles on Piers 62 and 63 at the end of the day on Seattle's central waterfront when the sun finally breaks out.




STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Puddles give a mirror image to downtown Seattle's waterfront. 2012 was the seventh-wettest year, according to the official reading at Sea-Tac.




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