Rust Belt Weather 180: Can We Call it an Asset?

Here’s an affordable idea that we can put to use to immediately make our region a more enjoyable and attractive place to live.  We need to straighten out our thinking about our weather – stop complaining about it – start enjoying it and making it a selling point.  When locals complain about the weather, visitors and new comers pick up on it.  We need to set aside all the moaning we’ve heard (and done) our whole lives.  Let’s take a clear-eyed look at the weather in the Rust Belt, especially it’s Snow Belt (Gary to Grand Rapids and Cleveland to Syracuse), and learn to appreciate what we have here.

A false accusation leveled against our weather is that, while our summers are pleasant and our spring and fall tolerable, we’re cooped up in the winter, unable to go outside because of the cold and snow. This just isn’t true.  Here in the Rust Belt, we have a climate that allows year-round activity.  It’s people in the Southeast and Southwest who are trapped indoors for a quarter or a third of the year.

If you go outside during the winter in our area, you will see people walking dogs, jogging, skiing, sledding, and snow shoeing.  In the Snow Belt, it rarely gets really cold.  Most years, the temperature never approaches zero.  Our “cold” days are in the twenties with teens overnight – just enough to keep the snow crisp.  Our average January highs are right at 32 degrees, which means we have frequent thaws in our coldest months.  Even in Minneapolis or Milwaukee, where it really does get cold, this does not prevent us from enjoying outdoor activities.  We put some clothes on.  Any kind of activity – walking, jogging, skiing – eliminates the discomfort of being cold and reduces any risks from the exposure.

If you’re lucky enough to live in the Snow Belt, you know it is also rarely dangerously hot here (or even uncomfortably hot).  We average less than ten days a year over ninety, compared to 167 days in Pheonix and 119 in Orlando.  In the Southeast and Southwest, warnings to limit outdoor activity are issued all the time.  When it’s 95 in Atlanta or 110 in Austin, doing anything outdoors beyond sitting in the shade is a health hazard.  Adding or removing clothing doesn’t help much.  Any activity increases the chances of heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

While we enjoy our summer activities up here, be it cycling, sailing, or beach volley ball, we shouldn’t sit around moping during the winter.  If you haven’t already, get some cross country skis, skates, and a snow board.  When they announce six inches of snow on the way, you’ll get excited, not disheartened.

We need to lay to rest the complaint that it’s cloudy here along with the hyperbole that we “never see the sun” in the winter or any other time.  In January, our grayest month, the sun is out about a third of the time.  Do you realize that Detroit and Cleveland, which receive about 2300 hours of sunshine per year, get as much sun as southern France and most of Italy?  What?!  That’s right; the “steel gray skies” of the Rust Belt give us more sun than anywhere in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, or the UK.  We get slightly more sun than Portland, Seattle or Vancouver.

Do you hear people coming back from their year abroad in Paris and complaining about the weather?  People joke about the drizzle in Seattle, but only after they explain twenty things they like about the place.  Any pessimist who ever said, “people will never move to Portland because its too cloudy,” has eaten his words.  While the Southwest clearly gets more sun, the difference between us and the Southeast is not tremendous.  Moving from Erie to Houston increases your annual sunlight exposure from 50% of daylight hours to 60%.  A change, yes, but life changing?  Probably not.  If people use lack of sun as an excuse not to move to the Rust Belt, it’s only because we brought it to their attention and greatly exaggerated it.

Our moderate temperatures are a trade-off for the few extra clouds.  However, unlike some coastal areas that end up with two seasons – more rain and less rain – our climate is moderated but not flattened.  We have four full seasons here.  You know every year, you’ll have days for going to the beach, you’ll enjoy beautiful fall foliage, have plenty of good skiing days, and then catch spring fever again.  Every season brings a new show – from the pounding waves on our lakes in November to the highlight outline on every branch with a moist spring snow.  What a dull life it would be if you looked out your window and nothing changed…ever.

The weather here is in sync with the rhythm of our culture.  At Christmas time, there is snow and icicles on every decoration, card and wrapping paper.  Who would want to be a kid in Texas singing about sleighs and snowmen, when you’ve never seen snow?  Who would want to raise kids in Phoenix, where they’re out of school for months and all they can do is hide in the air conditioning and play video games.  In our area, summers are comfortable for being outside all day at camp or a summer job.

We’ve all come across thoughtless media copy such as, “the steady march of people to the Sun Belt started with the invention of the air conditioner.  This year, X thousand more people moved to enjoy the year-round pleasant weather.”  If the weather is pleasant year round, why did people not want to move there until this machine was invented?  To tell the whole truth, the media reports need to say, “people are moving south for pleasant year round *driving* weather.”

The Rust Belt and the Sun Belt have the same amount of “pleasant” weather, just in different parts of the year.   The difference is our “unpleasant” weather comes with snow, which can annoy and slow drivers.  When people move south “for the weather,” it’s not because they’re training for a marathon 365 days a year.  It’s far more likely they’re going because they don’t want to brush off their car and drive behind a salt truck.  Along with our hospitable climate, the Rust Belt has more walkable neighborhoods, more parks, and more public transportation.  Sadly, for many people, life is lived in the car.  They’re not outside for exercise, commuting, or anything else.

They don’t know what they’re missing.  We should know, and we should boast about our wonderful weather every chance we get.


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