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In a Fog



Sunny San Diego loses its “perfect climate” title once a year——each June. Is everybody okay with that?

A June Gloom Tune

Lyrics to “June Gloom” by Los Angeles–based pop band The Like, 2006:
Sunset lost in
Skies of hazy grays
June gloom sets in
Puts me in a daze.
Nothing changes
All we do is wait
Our heads hanging
Shaking in dismay
’Cause everyone’s afraid.

I GET ALEXANDER GERSHUNOV on the phone to explain the June Gloom phenomenon. Gershunov, who goes by the nickname Sasha, asks me if I want the long or short answer. I go for long. He heaves a Russian sigh and clears his throat. Forty-five minutes later, he’s shed a good bit of light on why our skies are fogged up most mornings in late spring/early summer.

Gershunov is a meteorologist in the climate research division at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He enunciates slowly and repeats his words often, assuming his caller is meteorologically challenged. Good assumption.

The first thing we should know is that the June Gloom/May Gray morning fogginess comes to us because of a global-scale feature of the Earth’s weather ——specifically, that San Diego is in a “subtropical climate belt.” This belt is not made by Gucci. Rather, it’s a condition of descending, dry and warm air currents. Instead of raining men, it’s raining warm, dry air.

(Interestingly, this subtropical belt migrates south for the winter, creating rain—— and one more reason for those in Mexico to stay inside and mix up Margaritas.)

The descending air warms our land mass. Ahhh, yes, that feels good. And then, here come the cool breezes off the Pacific Ocean. When the warm air at the coastline drops onto the ocean breeze, a large temperature contrast is created. It’s similar to the contrast created on American Idol by Paula Abdul (ocean breeze) and Simon Cowell (hot air).

The Simon and Paula air masses elbow each other for space, and an inversion layer is created. Imagine hopping in a balloon with a really good Sharper Image thermometer. The balloon rises at the coast. As we go up, the temperature gets colder, naturally. Then we hit the inversion layer—— where Simon and Paula are punching each other, pulling hair, biting——and the temperature heats up. But don’t whip out the bikini just yet. Because as we float up and out of the inversion layer, it goes back to getting colder as we rise.

Back in the inversion layer, meanwhile, the heat is acting like a lid to Paula’s ocean air. That air——carrying moisture and salt from the sea——has nowhere to go. So the marine layer forms. And then beach-bound tourists from Phoenix cuss and fret and head to Old Town for overpriced taco salads.

My second-to-last question for Gershunov: What exactly is the marine layer?

“Technically it’s fog, not a cloud,” he says. “Both are formed by condensation of water vapor. It’s the same stuff. But clouds form from ascending air, and fog is formed in place, without being moved.”

Last question: Should we get all the local TV weather forecasters to start referring to the marine layer as fog, not clouds?

“If you really want to be anal about it,” he replies.
"It gets monotonous reporting the weather at this time of year. It’s the same thing every morning. It gets to the point you could have a monkey sit in for you.”
NOW THAT WE KNOW exactly what it is, a look at June Gloom’s effect on us is in order.

Natasha Stenbock does the morning TV weather for Channel 8. (For the record, Stenbock says she knew the marine layer was fog, not clouds.) From a professional point of view, June Gloom is boring for a weatherperson. “It gets monotonous reporting the weather at this time of year,” she says. “It’s the same thing every morning. It gets to the point you could have a monkey sit in for you.”

Stenbock knows we are on the record.

“Yes, I’m fine with a monkey doing my job,” she quips. “I’m saying it’s more exciting when we get creative weather.”

Generally, the cooler it is, the more likely the gloom will hang around longer. Even for an experienced weather forecaster——she’s currently finishing classes to get her meteorology degree——Stenbock says it’s hard to predict if and when a marine layer will be burned off by the sun.

That’s a forecast lifeguards at San Diego beaches are asked for all pre-summer.

“People ask us all day if the marine layer is going to clear out,” says Rich Stropky, a sergeant in the San Diego Lifeguard Service. “We have no way of knowing.”

Stropky says the effect of June Gloom on beach attendance is hard to call. “In some ways it affects us, and in some ways it doesn’t. If people are visiting from hotter areas, they get up in the morning and go to the beach. Those are the people who want to know if it’s going to clear out. So we usually get the crowds no matter what. But after a while, some people throw in the towel [literally] and go inland, or somewhere on the bay.”

This information begs the question: Does June Gloom hurt tourism business?

“It could have an effect on trip satisfaction by visitors,” says Susan Bruinzeel, director of market intelligence for the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau. “But it doesn’t seem to be affecting business overall.”

Bruinzeel says the top three months for tourism business are, in order, July, August and June, followed by April and May. Attendance at attractions and occupancy for hotels in those months also follows form —— June ranks third.

ConVis hasn’t done extensive research on the economic impact of June Gloom. Surely, though, hazy skies would mean big business for area tanning salons. My informal canvass brings conflicting reports. I call six salons. Three say——surprisingly——that business goes down on gloomy days. Two notice that business goes up. One salon I call doesn’t seem to know what planet it exists on.
“Business goes down,” says Ocean Beach Tanning Club owner Jason Welton. “On June Gloom days it seems like there aren’t as many people out and about as there are on sunny days.”
"It really depends. Sometimes it’s not so busy [when San Diego is fogged in]. Maybe people are covering up more on gloomy days. People are going out less, and staying inside.”
Jessica Nordyke is a sales associate for California Tan, which has two locations in Point Loma and one in La Jolla. “In June, if it’s not sunny, we are packed,” she says. “I think a tan makes people feel better.”

Sara Ettinger, manager of Platinum Tan at Horton Plaza, says it’s hard to call. “It really depends,” she says. “Sometimes it’s not so busy [when San Diego is fogged in]. Maybe people are covering up more on gloomy days. People are going out less, and staying inside.”

That’s kind of a downer. And so is seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that occurs in some people when the amount of light they are exposed to is decreased. Some believe June Gloom can bring on SAD. Symptoms include fatigue, depression, irritability, loss of sex drive, poor sleep and overeating. (Incidentally, those symptoms also arrive with the onset of college finals.)

Evidence linking June Gloom and SAD isn’t conclusive or extensive. So think twice before calling in sick with SAD this June. And remember to call the marine layer fog, not clouds. Even if it is kind of anal.
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