Northern California Climate

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San Francisco is in an area of “exceedingly diversified topography” (McAdie, 1903) that is favorable to numerous microclimates (McAdie, 1913; Gilliam, 1962). Winds are channeled over and around the City of San Francisco by the terrain, resulting in pronounced differences in the weather across relatively short distances (Root, 1960; Null, 1978).

The development of the extremely varied California landscape is a consequence of the interaction between of the North American and Pacific tectonic plates (Alt & Hyndman, 1975). The most prominent features, and most important in their effect upon state’s climate (Root, 1960), are the Sierra Nevada and Coast ranges, between which lies the Great Valley. All three, generally oriented from northwest to southeast, are parallel to the motion of the North American plate.

San Francisco, which is described by approximately a seven mile by seven mile square, sits at the northern end of a peninsula, straddling the Coast Range just south of where it is broken by the Golden Gate. The melting of the ice sheets that covered the North American continent during the Pleistocene caused sea level to rise and flood the structural depression which is now San Francisco Bay (Howard, 1962; Alt & Hyndman, 1991). Outflow from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, fed by the drainages from the surrounding Sierra Nevada and Coast Range, maintains the breach as the only major outlet to the Pacific. San Francisco’s steep topography is the boundary between the Pacific Ocean on the west, San Francisco Bay to the east and the Golden Gate to the north. The highest terrain is toward the south, where the elevations rise to over 900 feet, with Mount Davidson’s peak of 938 feet the tallest, followed closely by Mount Sutro at 920 feet and both North and South Twin at 919 feet. In addition to the primary north- northwest to south-southeast ridgeline, a number of significant hills dominate the San Francisco horizon, as spurs off of the main axis. The city’s steepness is shown by the fact that the 60 meter elevation contour is generally within one mile of sea level (United States Geological Survey, 1973a, 1973b).

Because of the small area that San Francisco covers there are no significant natural drainage basins within the city limits. Those which may have existed historically have long since been constrained to underground culverts and the storm drain system.


The sharp topography and maritime surroundings of San Francisco combine with the unique California climate to produce a number of extremely varied microclimates within its 46 square miles. California’s location in the middle latitudes and on the west coast of the North American continent, places it in the relatively rare Mediterranean (Etesian) type climate (K”ppen type Cs). The only other regions of the earth sharing this climate type are the southwestern tip of Africa, the west coast of Chile, the west coast of Australia, and of course, the region surrounding the Mediterranean Sea (Critchfield, 1966). This type of climate type is generally characterized by moist mild winters and dry summers.

San Francisco’s climate is further modified by the location of the City on the northern end of a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by the relatively cool waters of the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay. In addition to the normal cool temperatures of the mid-latitude Pacific Ocean, the water temperatures are modified by the upwelling of cold water along the California coast. This phenomenon is caused by the persistence of the Pacific High and the northwest winds that are constrained by the Coast Range to blow parallel to the coastline. The effects of these winds, the Coriolis Force and resultant sub-surface Ekman Spiral, causes a net transport of surface waters away from the shore. Consequently, as the surface waters drift away from the coast, they are replaced by the upwelling of colder waters from below (Ahrens, 1991).

Summertime in San Francisco is characterized by cool marine air and persistent coastal stratus and fog, with average maximum temperatures between 60øF and 70øF, and minima between 50øF and 55øF. The mornings will typically find the entire city overcast followed by clearing on the warmer bay side, but only partial clearing on the cooler ocean side. The summertime temperature gradient across the city is generally from northwest to southeast, with the warmer readings farthest from the coast and in the wind sheltered valleys east of the Coast Range bisector. These differences are enhanced further by a strong afternoon and evening seabreeze that is a result of the temperature (and consequently pressure) difference between the Pacific Ocean and the interior valleys of California. These westerly winds are channeled through the Golden Gate and lesser breaks in the high terrain of the Coast Range, reaching a maximum during the afternoon with speeds between 20 and 30 miles per hour being typical (Root, 1960).

Rainfall from May through September is relatively rare, with an aggregate of less than an inch, or only about 5 percent of the yearly average total of approximately 21.5 inches. Off- season rains which do occur are usually the result of weak early or late season occluded fronts, or surges of subtropical moisture from the south that result in brief showers or thundershowers spreading into the area. Considerable moisture is due to drizzle when the marine layer deepens sufficiently. This is seldom enough to measure (i.e., less than .01 inch) on any given day, except along the immediate coast.

Winter temperatures in San Francisco are quite temperate, with highs between 55øF and 60øF and lows in the 45øF to 50øF range (Null, 1978). The main source region of wintertime fog in San Francisco is the Great Valley. Radiation fog is formed in the moist regions of the Sacramento River Delta and is advected through Suisun and San Pablo Bays and into San Francisco Bay on cool easterly drainage winds. This type of fog is less common than that of summer, but is typically much denser and has a greater impact upon transportation systems due to greatly reduced visibilities (Root, 1960).

Over 80 percent of San Francisco’s seasonal rain falls between November and March, occurring over about 10 days per month. Winter rains on the California coast are primarily due to occluded fronts on a trajectory from the west-northwest, and an occasional cold front from the Gulf of Alaska. These systems are driven southward during the winter as the Pacific High drifts south and westerlies and Polar jetstream dip south of 40øN. Winter thunderstorms occur on the average only twice per season in cold unstable post-frontal airmasses. There is also considerable areal variation of annual precipitation amounts. The isohyet (contours of equal rainfall) analysis developed by Rantz (1971) depicts a maximum (22 ” contour) over the higher terrain in the south central portion of San Francisco. This is primarily due to the orographic effects resulting from uplift of the airflow from the Pacific striking the Coast Range. The 20″ contour is along the western edge and also across the northeastern quadrant of San Francisco, with the 18″ contour just touching the waterfront in the extreme northeast.

Snow is extremely rare in San Francisco, with only 10 documented instances of measurable snow at the official observing site in the past 143 seasons. Snow has fallen on a number of other occasions, but usually only in trace amounts or at the higher elevations. Additionally, some of these occurrences are not true snow events but were the result of either small hail or ice pellets (Pericht, 1988).

Spring and fall are transition periods for San Francisco. These seasons usually produce the most cloud-free days between the overcast days of summertime stratus and the rain laden clouds of winter. San Francisco’s hottest days are typically during the spring and fall when high pressure builds into the Pacific Northwest and Great Basin, and dry offshore winds replace the Pacific seabreeze. The three hottest days in San Francisco occurred in September and October (Pericht, 1988).

The occurrence of rainfall during the early spring and fall is infrequent, with only about 5 days per month on the average. While most storms during these periods produce light precipitation, the occasional coupling of polar and subtropical airmasses can produce heavy rainfall events. For example, the “Columbus Day Storm” (October 11, 1962 through October 13, 1962) dropped over five inches of rain on San Francisco (Null, 1978). The diversity of San Francisco’s microclimates in general and its rainfall patterns in particular must be considered when utilizing the data from a single site. In a relatively flat region, without the influences of the ocean and topography, there is little discernible change in annual rainfall averages with distance. However, within a distance of only a few miles in San Francisco there can be as much as a 20 percent difference in average annual rainfall (i.e., from 18″ to 22″).
San Francisco Station Locations and History.

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