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Sunday, November 24, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Northwest Places

MY WINDOW LOOKS OUT over Elliott Bay.

In the summer at night the ferries float across the cool black water as still as giant white Buddhas. In the day, sailboats dodge the container ships and the tugs plowing in and out. The harbor cranes stack and fill. Light dances. It's a picture-postcard view. I hate it. I close the blinds to write because of the glare from the sun reflected off the water.

The view from my window today over Elliott Bay, or where I guess Elliott Bay to be, mainly because that's where it was when last seen, before the dampness descended a month ago - or is it a year? - is blank. The blinds are wide open. It's pouring down rain.

It's a picture-postcard view.

I don't much like nature. I find that part of it known as the elements irritating. When you're out in it, it makes you sweat or itch or shiver or hold on to your hat. I try to avoid it at all costs. But this is nice. So many beautiful shades of gray. I like it.

Rain suits me. It's the one weather event that can be almost completely appreciated indoors or out. Rain is malleable, almost infinite in its variety.

There is drizzle, mist and showers; there are cloudbursts, microbursts and, here in the Northwest, something inexplicably called sunbursts; there are intermittent rains, dry rains, light, moderate and heavy rains; there is even a category meteorologists call excessive rains, which is as close to a moral judgment as we might want a scientist to get.

It can rain pitchforks, frogs, cats and dogs. There's the steady rain that nourishes, the soft rain that consoles, and the hard rain that's gonna fall.

There's Good Rain, Wicked Rain, Cold Rain, Acid Rain, Purple Rain. You can Tell It to the Rain, and cry in it, sing in it, dance in it. Some rains wash away heartaches. Others cause them. There's Alabama Rain, April Showers, Black Summer Rain, Fire and Rain, Cold Rain, Colored Rain, No Rain and Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.

There's rain in Spain, Baltimore, Dallas, September and In My Heart.

There's a Rainy Day, Rainy Day Blues, a Rainy Day in Monterey, Rainy Day People, Rainy Day Man and Rainy Day Women #12 and #35.

I remember rain first as sound - noise, really. Its intentions couldn't have been clearer if announced in a song. It would come in the Midwestern spring and wash away the muffling cover of snow, accompanied by ice breaking, birds and boys shouting, and sticks floating as boats in the gurgle of streetside gutters.

Later, in the summer, the rain was still noisy, but an interruption, a cause of canceled games. But it was useful as a way to make things grow and make farmers shut up.

Man, we'd think, if we could just get a good storm through here, maybe these guys would quit complaining. I didn't know it then, but farmers seldom quit complaining. Given just the three subjects that made up their entire songbook - weather, government and their neighbors' work habits - any self-respecting farmer could complain from sunup to sundown, stopping only for the occasional hand of double-deck pinochle; or to cash their crop-support checks en route to Hawaii for Thanksgiving.

But even world-class complainers would fall quiet in the face of an August thunderstorm. Fear, not satisfaction, I think, shut them up. Be careful, they must have whispered, there's somebody out there listening. And they're not happy.

I was driving across the Plains late one night on U.S. 20 when one of these thunderstorms struck. I saw the lightning crackle up ahead in the eastern sky. The first big drops hit the windshield like stones. Then they began to crash in great white sheets, Christo-sized, large enough to wrap the Reichstag in. The lightning kept pace. It ceased to be a series of flashes and became one long, constant roar of overwhelming bright light and huge, dark noise.

Short of being knocked off a horse en route to Damascus, being in a raging storm is as close to a religious experience as I can imagine. This was the real thing.

The sky was ablaze. There was anger on the air.

In a while, anger abated, the storm passed. They all do, real rains. They end.

This, though, this whatever it is outside that makes up a Northwest winter, this comes and stays.

Weather scientists can now track storm cells. Some go round and round the globe several times without diminishing. Every time they encounter the right conditions, principally rising warm air, it rains.

The cells are constantly refueled with water vapor, making the rain theoretically endless.

That's the key. It's not the amount of rain that defines the Northwest. It's the persistence. Our rain is a relative you thought you knew until the day he showed up on your doorstep. He came in for the night, stayed through the weekend. Monday, he missed his plane. By Thursday, he had migrated from the spare room to the kitchen to the living room, devouring space as he went. Pretty soon he'd taken control of the refrigerator, the television and the stereo.

Eventually, it dawns on you, he's taken over your life.

Rain moves in and sets up shop in the imagination. It takes over, closing you off, obscuring. By making everything dark, it leaves no choice but to contemplate the incomprehensible.

THE VIEW FROM MY WINDOW over Elliott Bay looks much like the inside of a cloud.

I've never been in a cloud, but people who have describe it as looking about the way you would expect - clouded, like a heavy fog.

Art Rangno has been inside hundreds of clouds. Some people might argue he has spent far too long inside them. "I've chased clouds," he says. "I've been under them, in them, above them." Rangno is a cloud and rain nut. He's a staff meteorologist at the University of Washington. That's his job. Weather is his life.

He got his first barometer at 8. He began subscribing to The Daily Weather Map, a government-produced archive of national weather data, when he was 10. He was so young his mom had to send in the subscription for him.

He once rode his bike all the way across Los Angeles to get the autograph of a famed weather theorist at UCLA.

Rangno's singular passion is rain. As a child, when it rained at night he insisted on sleeping outdoors under an aluminum awning. The acoustics of the metal provided so much more information than the house's roof. You could hear the size of the drops change.

As a teenager, he kept an eye on the eastern horizon for signs of cumulonimbus clouds forming, indicators of potential thunderstorms out in the Mojave. When he spotted such clouds, he'd hop in his car, usually dragging a friend along because to do this alone seemed too weird, the central weirdness owing to why a boy would rather be off by himself in the desert chasing clouds than surfing in the sun at Zuma Beach. Rangno and friend would race over the pass through the San Gabriel Mountains and down onto the desert floor, speeding after the roiling clouds.

If they were lucky and fast, they would catch up to the cloud and sit beneath it waiting to get wet. About half the time, he guesses now, they'd actually get rain. He'd hop out, set up his rain gauge and sit inside and listen to the glorious noise. Once, he recorded 54 one-hundredths of an inch in 15 minutes.

"The best I was ever in, I was with my wife, well, my first wife. It was the absolute best rain out of a cumulonimbus I've ever seen. Must have been two inches. I didn't have my gauge with me that day. It was like a date."

For most of us, nice weather is a nonevent. When weather becomes an event, when weather does something, it can only be bad. Weather people, however, keep coming back to a Rangno-like view of weather as entertainment.

Nick Bond, a weather researcher at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, grew up like Rangno in rain-deprived California, studying with more or less equal ardor baseball box scores and stream-flow charts.

"I've been here (in Seattle) 16 years so I'm not exactly hurting for water, but I like the rain. I'm always kind of depressed when it stops raining.

"My least favorite time of the year is spring, because there is nothing to look forward to. The summer is actually quite monotonous."

Another meteorologist, Brad Colman of the U.S. Weather Service, grew up here and has "the webbing on my feet to prove it," but lived for a time in Boulder, Colo., a place rightly praised for its sunny climate.

"I found the sun kind of stressful," he says. "You have to squint. It gives you headaches; you get burned. Cloudy, drizzly weather is soothing."

WE HERE IN THE PACIFIC Northwest tend to think we have some sort of proprietary claim to rain. It's our defining characteristic, responsible for everything from our clothing - layered - to our temperament - boring.

This is, after all, Rain City. We live next to a rainforest. It's the rainy season. When the world wants rain gear, it comes to REI and Eddie Bauer. We're the reason Gore-Tex was invented, right?

Well, no. Gore-Tex was invented in Delaware by people whose main business was insulating electric wires. And it actually doesn't rain that much here compared to a lot of other less notably rainy places. Miami, for example. Or New York.

We have misjudged rain. Or at least our association with it. It is often wet and cloudy here in the Pacific Northwest. Wetness, in fact, is a kind of ambient condition, but it seldom really rains. It can rain all day in Seattle and barely dampen the ground. In the past 50 years the greatest amount of rain recorded at Sea-Tac Airport in half an hour is half an inch. This is pitiful compared to rains elsewhere.

Rain, or the lack of it, is the most powerful force on the planet. It's ubiquitous. It falls everywhere on earth. Even in those places it never rains, it sometimes does. In many places, it rains much, much more than it does here.

Once, long ago, I arrived in a strange country early in the morning of a steaming hot summer day. The sun stared in a blank blue sky. By noon, I retreated inside to hide from it. When I re-emerged an hour later, I was blinded again by the light. Walking, with my eyes shielded, I stepped off the sidewalk into a foot of water.

The daily monsoon had come and gone and in the course of a glass of beer had dumped more rain on a bone-dry street than I had ever seen in a week. One night later that month, the rain fell so hard and fast that waves formed on the street and broke over the windshield of the car I was in.

In seaside tropics, this is not an unusual event.

In March of 1952, a small island in the Indian Ocean received 74 inches of rain in a single 24-hour period. A city not far away received more than 1,000 inches of rain in one year.

The monsoons, like our rains here, are seasonal. The thing most like a monsoon - in its results, anyhow - outside the tropics is a thunderstorm.

Northwestern rain walks on tiptoes. Thunderstorms wear army boots.

It once rained an inch and a quarter in one minute in Unionville, Md. A Missouri town once recorded 12 inches of rain in 42 minutes. About 100 years ago, Rockport, W.Va., reported 19 inches of rain in two hours and 10 minutes.

THERE IS, IN SHORT, A LOT of water up there. How much?

Consider a day like yesterday, a normal day in a normal autumn of a normal year. It rained most of the day. Rain amounts can vary dramatically within a storm. Typically, four times as much rain falls on the west side of the Olympic Mountains as on the east. Even within the Seattle metropolitan area, rainfall varies significantly. The eastern suburbs nearer the Cascades and the northern suburbs, which sit in an area known as a convergent zone - where air streams collide - can get twice as much rain as downtown Seattle. Capitol Hill, mainly because it sticks up, gets much more rain than the University of Washington, less than a mile away.

But yesterday, several stations reported amounts around an inch for the day. An inch of rain spread throughout the entire Seattle city limits would amount to 1.4 billion gallons.

That's a lot of water. The storm that produced it stretched up and down the I-5 corridor, covering an area about 200 miles long by 50 miles wide. An inch of rain over that area would equal 173 billion gallons. The storm that dropped this incredible but ordinary deluge would have been by no means exhausted.

Rain is part of what is called the hydrologic cycle, which, in its basest definition, is this: The sun causes liquid water to evaporate into a gas called water vapor; the vapor rises into the air; as it rises it cools and condenses into tiny drops. Billions of such drops form clouds.

Rain is produced when tiny drops inside clouds grow. In order to fall from the clouds, the drops must reach a minimum size, about half the diameter of a human hair.

They grow to this size in one of two ways. The first is through a process called collision-coalescence. Simply put, they bump into and merge with one another until they form drops too large to be suspended in the air. They fall.

This is the process by which most coastal rains occur.

Hoquiam gets mainly collision-coalescence rain. Seattle doesn't. Most Seattle rains, as well as most rains in most places, are the result of a second process in which the vapor droplets condense around ice crystals, which form within cold, high clouds for reasons that are not entirely clear. Successive series of condensing drops build the tiny crystals in size, until they, too, are heavier than air and begin falling as snowflakes. As they fall, the flakes melt into rain. Most of our rain, in other words, starts out as snow, which is the reason ski resorts here have notably less fluffy snow than they would like; it isn't far removed from not being snow at all.

These are not completely satisfying accounts, not even to the scientists. There is a missing link in the explanation for the kind of rain we get here. No one knows exactly why the ice crystals form. From direct observation, scientists know what conditions need to exist to create the crystals, and thus the rain. They don't know why sometimes the crystals form and other times do not. There is no adequate theory of rain.

Art Rangno, the UW meteorologist, says that when he slept under his aluminum awning in the rain, listening, one thought persistently occurred to him.

"It made you think: Why?"

Thirty-some years later, this is still a central question: "How do you do that up there?"

I TAKE COMFORT IN THIS.

It's raining. And no one knows exactly why.

Maybe, a friend says, it's raining because the clouds are sad. Maybe. But this friend is given to emotional explanations of things that don't warrant them, so I'm not sure. The friend's a woman, and I have dismissed many a womanly explanation for exactly this reason. I've been thinking about this one, though, and it has some merit. Why not?

Rain seldom arrives unanticipated. It's announced right there on the weather map in vivid, pulsating color. You can see where it comes from, this front out there in the Pacific Ocean. Knowing the origin of a thing, we tend, smugly, to think we know its reasons.

It's like people.

"You're from New York?" we might say. Then hearing an affirmative answer, we would say: "Oh."

This "Oh" implies much, mainly that we now know things we previously did not.

So knowing the origin of rain as well as its destinations (your forehead, your windshield, your picnic), we might think we know everything there is to know about it. But there comes a point in a prolonged rain when it quits making sense. You lose rational comprehension of it.

As it continues, it blots out its reasons for being. If it continues long enough, it might blot out yours, too, wiping clean your slate of private explanations.

It soaks through. You can't get any wetter. You've fallen in. It's November.

Oh my, no wonder the clouds are sad.

Terry McDermott is a Seattle Times columnist. Alan Berner is a Times staff photographer.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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