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Winter gloom: What better time to vent about gray sky?

Sun., Dec. 9, 2012

Every year, when December arrives, I dread the arrival of the Inland Northwest’s ugliest kind of winter weather.

Snow? Of course not. Snow is white and cheerful.

I mean fog, a far more hideous phenomenon. Fog is gray, dismal, suffocating and, like certain WSU football seasons, it has a depressive effect on the human central nervous system. There is only one thing worse than fog, and that’s freezing fog. Yes, and before winter is over, we’ll be getting plenty of that, too.

As I write these words early in December for an advance deadline, the sun is out and the sky is blue. Yet I am not fooled by this fine weather. I know that by the time you read this – or soon afterward – we’ll be suffering through a few days or even a week or two of deep winter fog. It happens every year, for reasons that, frankly, elude me.

There are many reasons to despise fog, including the obvious ones. For instance, have you ever timed a winter road tip over the mountain passes to avoid snow? And then, just as you are congratulating yourself for your excellent timing, you hit 30 miles of fog? A dense fog can be so treacherous on the road, you’ll wish it were snowing instead.

And then there’s simply the gloom of it all, right around the time of year when we crave any daylight we can get. The sun is up only about eight hours a day. What a cruel trick, then, for the sun to be shrouded in a blanket of wet gray wool.

Yet the thing that drives me craziest about fog is this: I simply don’t understand it. Snow, I understand. Snow is just like rain, but frozen.

But fog just materializes for no apparent reason and follows no understandable rules. Does fog form low, in valleys? Yes, sometimes, which is why you can often drive up to Mt. Spokane and climb out into glorious sunlight. Or does fog form high, on mountaintops? Yes, sometimes, which is why you can grab your sunglasses on a beautiful downtown day, drive to Mt. Spokane, and spend the day straining to see your ski tips.

I figured that maybe if I could understand the science behind fog, I would not despise it so much. So I went to my copy of “A Field Guide to the Atmosphere” (yes, I am nerdish enough to own one) and looked it up. Here is what it said: “When the ground loses heat during the night the air in contact with it is cooled. When there is enough moisture in the air, and there is little or no wind, the air temperature may be lowered to the point at which dew forms and condensation will occur.”

Oh, well, that certainly clears it up. Fog forms when the conditions get, you know, foggy.

Reading further, I discovered that fog is merely a stratus cloud at ground level. Yet this still doesn’t answer the question: Why doesn’t this stratus cloud have the common sense to get up off the ground, like every other cloud?

Because it wants to annoy us, that’s why.

We here in Spokane have relatively little to complain about. A long time ago, I used to live over on Puget Sound, where the fog would roll in like a cold, wet blob, so thick there were days when you had to simply guess whether it was day or night. The only thing more treacherous than fog on land is fog on the water – especially if you’re puttering around in circles in a small boat in what may or may not be a freighter shipping lane.

Still, when we get fog here, we can really get socked in. One of my most disheartening Christmas memories was of the time I had to drive all over Spokane and Spokane Valley, scouting out the best Christmas lights. The nighttime fog was so thick that I remember sitting on the street, outside of what amounted to a Clark Griswold split-level fantasyland, when all I could see was this: Some parts of the fog looked bluer than others, while other parts looked redder and greener.

It just made me sad, and it also helped me to understand why nobody writes Christmas songs called “Grey Christmas” and “Let It Fog!”

(And, while I’m at it, what, exactly, is the story with “fog lights” on a car? I once got talked into the optional fog lights on a Subaru. They were exactly as effective in fog as my regular headlights, which is to say, the only way I could tell if my fog lights were on was to get out of the car, stand in front, and look.)

Meanwhile, I haven’t even expanded on the charms of freezing fog, which we suffer from disproportionately. Freezing fog has all the properties of fog, plus, for extra zing, the properties of a minor ice storm. The only prudent course of action during a night of freezing fog is to stay inside with a cup of hot chocolate and listen to the accidents pile up on your nearest arterial.

Surely I’m not the only one with such virulent anti-fog sentiments. That’s why I decided to clear the air in this column. I wanted you to know you are not alone.

I hope that venting about the subject can cause some of these bad feelings to dissipate. Because that’s the only thing likely to dissipate, if you catch my drift.

Jim Kershner is a senior correspondent for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at

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