The real number of sunny days in Pittsburgh is 145 (not 59)

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How do I know? I counted them.

Jim has been my best friend for the past 20 years. We grew up here. We both moved away for college and the start of our careers. I came back. He didn’t. The December before last, during one of his visits from Maryland, Jim and I sat at my dining room table, talking about what most best friends who haven’t seen each other in months talk about — the weather.

“Man, it’s gray today,” I said, looking out as a soft drizzle coated the asphalt of Smallman Street.

Jim smiled. “Well, you know,” he said, “Pittsburgh gets only 59 sunny days a year, so …”

Huh? What was that? “Fifty-nine? That doesn’t sound right to me,” I replied.

Jim nodded. “It’s true. Look it up sometime.”

After he left, I went straight to my computer for a Google search. Fifty-nine sunny days? No way. That’s only five sunny days a month. There’s no way that can be true. I typed “number of sunny days in Pittsburgh” and hit return. People would be jumping out of buildings. They’d be leaving faster than they already …

There it was in tiny black-and-white pixels: “Average number of sunny days a year in Pittsburgh: 59.” This was followed by more sites declaring the same thing: 59. 59. 60 (they rounded up, I guess). 59. 59. And to make matters worse, mixed in with the statistics were links to articles (several by this fine newspaper) quoting various people complaining about our gray weather and referencing that magic 59. And the majority of those quoted actually live here!

I was flummoxed. Surely I’m missing something. I mean, this isn’t Miami Beach, but 59 sunny days a year? I think I would have noticed. So I decided to do what any true Pittsburgher does — deny the data.

“I don’t believe these Web sites,” I e-mailed Jim that night. “There has to be some sort of conspiracy going on here.”

A week later he e-mailed me an online conversation he had with a real-life meteorologist from WPXI-TV (Jim just loves being right). She confirmed the 59 from someplace called the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C. They have been compiling weather data for the past 50 years. Still sounded bogus to me.

But I humored Jim and read the attached report. Looking more closely at the fine print, it hit me: They say 59 clear days. Not “sunny” but “clear.” And, as I read further, a “clear” day is defined by the NCDC as a day with “zero to 3/10 average sky cover.”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a day in Pittsburgh that had zero clouds and I don’t know how to gauge what “3/10” means without ever taking my eyes off the sky. But I do know that there are many days here where a mass of clouds will blow in, sit for a bit and then blow on by. And you’ll still go to sleep thinking to yourself, “It was a pretty nice day out today.”

And now it starts to make sense. Semantics strike again. People who live here and people who have never even been here see that 59 in isolation, with no indication of the parameters, and just assume that Pittsburgh is dreary.

It’s a lot like when people see the mill footage right after commercial breaks of Steelers games or remember their grade school history books and assume that smoke-belching steel plants still line our rivers. As with a lot of things in this town, “truth” lies somewhere in the perception. And, indeed, there is often a fine line between “sunny” and “gray” here — literally and figuratively.

So when the first of the year rolled around, I decided to do my own independent research. I would officially record the Sunny Days in Pittsburgh for 2006.

Now, I don’t claim to be the National Climatic Data Center. I have no high-tech gizmos and apparatuses. I do it the old-fashioned way: I look out the window or go outside and walk around. If it was sunny, I circled the day in my notebook (found below).

A sunny day, by my definition, doesn’t need to be clear for the entire daylight hours. Clouds can be good every now and again. They break up the monotony and even cool things down for a spell. But if the sky is blue for a good part of the day and you can feel some warmth on your face — well, my friends, that’s a sunny day in my book. (Disclaimer: On the few days I was out of town, I called my sister and asked for her reading, strictly abiding by the above criteria.)

So, according to my calculations, the actual number of sunny days in Pittsburgh last year was 145.

Further observations about 2006 can be gleaned from the data I collected:

  • May, October and November each had brutal stretches of gray.
  • April and August were glorious.
  • When Pittsburgh was on the national stage for the All-Star Game (July 8-11), the sun barely came out for any of it.
  • We averaged 12 sunny days a month and 18 gray ones.
  • The longest stretch of sunny days was seven (Dec. 9-15). And the longest stretch of gray was 13 (Aug. 24 to Sept. 5).
  • There were only nine times when we had a sunny weekend (Saturday and Sunday). And only six times when we had sun from a Friday to a Sunday.
  • We had 18 sunny Sundays, 19 sunny Mondays, 19 sunny Tuesdays, 21 sunny Wednesdays, 23 sunny Thursdays, 23 sunny Fridays and 22 sunny Saturdays.
  • I have way too much free time on my hands.

But the most important observation is that when you’re talking about sunny days, 145 sure beats 59. And here’s to even more in 2007. In the meantime, you’ll be happy to know that I’ve started keeping track of how much snow we have this winter. The 43 inches they say we usually get just doesn’t sound right to me.

Click journal above to view details of the official S.D.I.P. note book.

Brett Yasko is a designer living in the Strip.

The Next Page is different every week.

-- John Allison (  412-263-1915 )


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