While many picture Washington as a state characterized by cloudy days and immense amounts of rainfall, Washington’s climate varies widely across the state. Temperatures in western Washington are mild, with a smaller range. By comparison, eastern Washington experiences the extremes of summer and winter. Discover the coldest temperature ever recorded in the state and find out which Washington animals thrive in winter.
The Climate in Washington State
The climate in the state of Washington differs greatly between the West and the East. This phenomenon is due to the Cascades, a mountain range that lies just East of Seattle, Washington. Western Washington experiences a mild climate compared to other northern regions within the United States. For instance, the average January temperatures in Washington sit around 40ºF, and the summer temperatures lie in the mid-60s. By contrast, northern Minnesota, which has a similar latitude to that of Washington, has average January temperatures between -5ºF and 15ºF.
On the other hand, climate and temperature variations according to the seasons in eastern Washington are much greater than in the West. Temperatures in the summer can sometimes be greater than 100ºF, but average summer temperatures typically lie around 70ºF. During the winter months, some cities experience below-freezing temperatures in the mid-20s.
Precipitation in western Washington is heavy, receiving over 150 inches of rainfall annually in some areas. Rainfall in and near the Cascades can be more than 100 inches annually. East Washington receives significantly less precipitation than the Cascades and western Washington. The eastern portion will see only 17 inches of annual rainfall.
Temperature Records in Washington
Due to climate variability across the state, Washington sees different minimum temperatures in different portions. In the Seattle-Tacoma region, the lowest temperature ever recorded was 0ºF during January of 1950. By comparison, Spokane, Washington, which lies in the eastern portion of the state, saw a minimum temperature of -25ºF in 1968. The temperature differences between the minimums of the two regions show the impressive way the climate can change drastically due to topography and other contributing factors.
The Coldest Temperature Ever Recorded in Washington
While Spokane, Seattle, and Tacoma are three well-known cities in the state, their temperature minimums are not nearly as close to the minimum recorded by Winthrop and Mazama. On December 30, 1968, the two cities reported temperature minimums at -48ºF. By comparison, Hanford, Washington, reported the hottest temperature on record on June 29, 2021. The temperature was 120ºF. Therefore, there is a wide difference between Washington state’s hottest and coldest temperatures, especially considering the regions within it.
Washington Animals During Winter
Many animals in Washington choose to migrate during the cold winter months. For instance, elk and deer often move from higher to lower elevations to avoid severe weather conditions. Furthermore, lower elevations bring less snowfall and greater availability of sustenance. Fields at lower elevations are plentiful, with food for deer and elk during the winter.
Similarly, songbirds will migrate to the milder western Washington climate during the winter. On the other hand, birds like swallows and warblers are even less adapted to harsh winter climates. These feathered friends will travel hundreds of miles to warmer climates, where they can encounter fruit and bugs to eat during the winter.
Some animals will stay in place and hibernate during winter. These animals include small mammals like squirrels and chipmunks or bears. Small mammals will typically hibernate in a den underground. They won’t need to eat or drink often, as they live off the body fat accumulated during the summer. Small mammals will typically fully emerge from hibernation when heavy snowfall decreases and when snow begins to melt.
Black bears also hibernate during winter and can maintain their body heat within 10ºF of their normal body heat. These creatures do not eat or drink during hibernation but rely on their body fat and decreased metabolic rate to survive through this period. Some factors that aid black bears in their hibernation are size, coat density, and an enclosed hibernation space.
One small mammal, the pika, stores vegetation gathered during the summer and feeds on its stockpile during the winter. Pikas do not hibernate or migrate like much of the animal kingdom. Rather, pikas live in the subnivean zone alongside other small mammals such as voles and mice. The subnivean zone is defined by the area in which the snow and the soil meet. The snow allows the subnivean zone to become insulated for the survival of the small mammals that reside within it. These creatures will burrow tunnels within the snow to find and store food during winter.
Animals most adapted to Washington winters include birds like ravens, Canada jays, blue jays and other medium-sized mammals. Birds hide seeds across various locations during the summer. These birds return to these spots when winter arrives to feed on their hidden seeds and nuts.
Mammals like foxes and weasels will grow heavier coats to keep them warm during winter. Likewise, a bird’s feathers can insulate them from the harsh cold. One unique bird is the white-tailed ptarmigan, whose feathers camouflage them within the dense snow and whose feet are heavily feathered. Their feet act like snowshoes, allowing them to walk atop the powder without sinking.
The Climate Change Effects on Washington
Some believe that Washington’s recent record temperature high is due to global warming and climate change. Average annual temperature reports indicate that the Northwest region of the United States has experienced a 2-3ºF increase since 1900. The hottest years for Oregon, Alaska, and Washington have occurred within the last decade. Furthermore, the annual temperature averages between 1980 and 2011 were higher than those recorded between 1900 and 1960. It’s no surprise that Washington recorded their coldest temperature in 1968 and their warmest temperature in 2021. Global temperatures appear to be consistently increasing, and Washington may never again see a temperature below Spokane’s -25ºF in 1968, let alone Winthrop’s -48ºF.
FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
What was the coldest temperature ever recorded in Washington?
The coldest temperature ever recorded was -48ºF in Winthrop, Washington, in 1968.
What animals thrive in Washington during the winter?
Foxes and white-tailed ptarmigans do not hibernate nor migrate during winter. These animals are well-adapted to survive the winter months.
Where do small rodents live during winter?
Some small mammals and rodents hibernate during winter, but others live in the subnivean zone and create tunnels to find and store food.
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- Neil C. Gustafson, Available here: https://www.britannica.com/place/Minnesota
- National Weather Service, Available here: https://www.weather.gov/wrh/climate
- Office of the Washington State Climatologist, Available here: https://climate.washington.edu/state-records/#:~:text=Hottest%20temperature%20ever%20recorded%3A%20120,Winthrop%20on%2030%20December%201968
- WNPF, Available here: https://wnpf.org/2022/02/15/wildlife-in-winter-coping-with-cold/
- United States Department of Agriculture Climate Hub, Available here: https://www.climatehubs.usda.gov/hubs/northwest/topic/climate-change-impacts-northwest#:~:text=Warming%20Temperatures,over%20the%20last%2020%20years
- Eugene Clark, Available here: https://www.britannica.com/place/Washington-state