Fall in California - how does it work?
October 29, 2013 3:01 PM   Subscribe

I'm writing a little thing set in fall in California, and I'd like to get a sense of what the weather is like in the Alameda/Contra Costa area in October and November. I lived nearby - in Santa Cruz - for about a year, a long time ago, but my only memory is that it did eventually get cold - just not very. (Comparatively - I live in New England now, my cold scale now goes right on up to 11.)

The kind of information I'm looking for is more subjective than objective - I can Google average rainfall and temp, for example.

But does it seem like it rains a lot, or a little, compared to the rest of the year? Is there a significant shift toward Fall at some point in the year, and when does it happen? Do people wear gloves and coats at any point in October/November, or is that reserved for much later months? Do people do fall things like fall fests and whatnot? Does the air feel crisp and cool?

What are October and November like, in this area, in general?

As you can tell, I'm pretty ignorant on this subject - any first-hand accounts would be helpful.
posted by kythuen to Science & Nature (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Generally there's a big heat wave in October -- some people consider it the hottest month of the year in SF. It will often hit 80 in SF for a few days in early October, which means 5-10 degrees hotter in Oakland/Berkeley and 10-20 degrees hotter in Eastern Contra Costa (depending on exactly where you are - the farther you drive East, the hotter it gets, as a rule of thumb).

But then it starts getting colder. It will definitely rain some, but the real rainy season is February/March. Lows are commonly in the 50s or 60s, highs in the 70s or 80s.

Lots of Alameda and Contra Costa counties this time of year (most times of year) are a real crap-shoot weather wise depending on how far inland the fog comes and when it burns off. Some parts of Contra Costa county can have a 30 or 40 degree temperature shift from when you leave the house in the cold foggy morning to the hot hot afternoons some days. It's usually not that extreme this time of year, but 20 is normal. The nights are always relatively cold, even if it was 80 or 90+ that day.

Virtually nobody in Alameda or Contra Costa counties wears real gloves/coats any time of the year. Some people will, of course, but it's not the norm. And it generally wouldn't happen in October/November anyway. Some parts will get some morning windshield ice later in the year, but probably not too often in October/November. Though as I say this, there are some frost warnings in the North Bay which probably means there was some ice somewhere in the East Bay this morning

Also, though, it really depends on where exactly you're talking about. Comparing, say, Alameda versus Pittsburg can be very different, weather-wise. Some days the highs could be a 20 or 30 degree difference, again, depending on the fog and whatnot.

"Fall" isn't really a thing in most parts of this area. I mean, people do pumpkin patches around Halloween and stuff, because you have to, but it's more hay bales and pumpkins in a grassy park than orchards with leaves changing. It's not a real season the same way it is in some parts of the country. Almost nobody has enough leaves to make a leaf pile to jump in. I would not describe the air as "crisp" like it gets in New England, it's just colder.

But if you want a summary, the temperatures are going to be 40-80 depending on time of day and where you are, and it will rain some, but not every day. Virtually nobody's wearing a real coat or gloves.
posted by brainmouse at 3:22 PM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm a native of the area and spent 5 years in Boston, plus stints in DC and other areas. Hope this helps....

The first thing to know is that there is no general Alameda/Contra Costa weather! This area has microclimates with significantly different weather patterns. Oakland and Orinda, although next to each other, are separated by hills and can be 10 degrees apart. It's more temperate in Alameda -- warmer in the winter, colder in the summer, and unpredictable in the fall. A character who goes from Contra Costa to Alameda for work, for example, would want to wear layers.

Right now, it feels cold in the mornings and evenings -- many of us wear jackets but not gloves or hats, or a hat and sweater/sweatshirt but no jacket. It gets warm enough by midday to wear a long-sleeved shirt (or even a short-sleeved shirt for some people). There are random weeks full of sun, and people wear short sleeves, sundresses, shorts, etc. We all talk about how awesome the sun and warmth is and how lousy the cold is, even though the cold isn't cold by New England standards.

There isn't much rain this time of year. There used to be more, but now it's common to just get a few rainy days before December. It's getting darker earlier, and we complain about that too. There's often drought during the summer, so some folks - e.g. those with gardens - may be eagerly anticipating rain. If the drought is bad enough, residents have been banned from washing cars & watering lawns, and some have even rationed toilet flushes. (Note: this hasn't happened in several years.) The hills may still be golden or may have turned green. In the East, the summer is green and the winter is white & brown -- here, the summer is brown/golden and the summer is green.

There is a real shift towards the cold at some point, although it's highly variable, and it may vacillate between cold and warm (each for a few days at a time) throughout Sept., Oct., and Nov. If you're a parent, your life is full of pumpkin patches and Halloween costumes right now, as well as some back-to-school fall things. Non-parents or parents of grown kids are less focused on seasonal stuff. Apple-picking and fall leaves aren't quite the events here that they are in the East.

Come visit!
posted by equipoise at 3:26 PM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

September is usually the hottest month of the year and it's sometimes still pretty warm if not actually really hot in October. Most of the time it's cool enough to get be a little bit cold at night by Halloween though.

Rainfall varies a lot year to year, or at least it seemed that way to me as a kid growing up. It seemed like there were some years where it just rained a lot more than others. It rains more from December on than in the early fall.

The biggest change from late summer to early fall that I always noticed is that it starts to get a lot colder at night. Definitely by November usually, not always in October (definitely not if there is an October heat wave, which happens a lot). I have lots and lots of memories of being pretty cold at night. It will often still be fairly warm during the day though. And it's almost always sunny at some point during the day in the East Bay, even if it's not warm.

Also it's less likely to be foggy in the morning than in the spring and summer (there's a lot less fog overall compared to Santa Cruz too).
posted by treese at 3:26 PM on October 29, 2013

On preview: what brainmouse said!

Also to note: we don't heat (or air condition) our homes as thoroughly here as they do in the East. So even though it isn't that cold outside, it's a lot colder INSIDE. Many rental apartments have limited heating -- maybe some crappy electric baseboard heaters -- and limited insulation. Many of us use space heaters and wear big sweaters indoors on cold days, unlike in the East where you have to take off a lot of layers when you get inside.
posted by equipoise at 3:29 PM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

I grew up in (and currently live in) Santa Cruz County. I lived in Alameda for a year (and also San Francisco) along with Davis/Sacramento for several years, and in general it's pretty similar across all those areas during the fall. Sacramento/Davis starts off hotter and ends up slightly colder, but Santa Cruz and Alameda are pretty much the same.

Mostly it's fall because the days are short and it starts to rain. And it usually starts mid/late October.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 3:36 PM on October 29, 2013

October can have some pretty amazing daytime temperature differences. You can wake up to 45 degrees and leave for work in a jacket and then over the course of the day it will climb 40 degrees to 85 and you'll be sweltering.

There's kinda two seasons (and maybe two weeks of spring and a week of autumn). There's hot and there's grey. Currently we're moving into grey. The trees will lose their leaves and the hills will be grey and the sky will be grey and all of the people are grey and sad. Oh sorry. I hate this time of year.
posted by elsietheeel at 3:44 PM on October 29, 2013

Don't forget that we usually get the first rainstorm here in October or sometimes November. It doesn't rain in the summer, and that first storm is kind of a wake up call for people: "Oh yeah...water from the SKY!" As a result, people forget how to drive, highways are a mess, and all that oil and grease that built up on the roads over summer turns it into a slippery mess. Stormdrain inlets are blocked from leaves and a summer worth of trash and debris cause gutters to not work.
posted by chevyvan at 4:32 PM on October 29, 2013

September and October can definitely be hot in the Bay Area! This year it cooled off last week but then we had a warm day on Saturday. I'm pretty sure it's going to be cold from here on out. Not as cold as it gets in the East Coast, but it's cold.

elsietheeel makes a good point that it's cold in the morning and then the fog burns off and it's warmer in the afternoon until the sun goes down.

I think another main difference vs the East Coast is that we don't get this drastic leaves changing thing that everyone talks about. I mean yeah the trees dry up and your roses die off but it's not that beautiful crunchy leaves warm colors situation.

Oh yeah and microclimates. So confusing.
posted by radioamy at 4:33 PM on October 29, 2013

Funny, I was reading a book by one of my favorite (British) authors, and he described autumn or winter in Santa Cruz in a way that was just ... not right.

I live in Alameda and work in Contra Costa. CC is even more extreme than AC in terms of temp differences. It can be in the upper 30s at night and the mid 70s during the day. It's a relief, though, given that on a summer day when southern AC can be 79, CC can be 99. Actually, most people complain about the shift toward cool weather, but it's a big relief to me.

October is sometimes said to be the best time to visit SF due to a lack of fog and rain not coming in yet (but this year was foggy). There is usually a little rain in October. Well, this year we had only the faintest sprinkles yesterday...But an October day in Oakland could be sunny and 75 or overcast, rainy, and 59. It seems to me that rain has been erratic the last few years. Sometimes it doesn't gear up till January. Sometimes it gets going in October-November.

Whenever the first big shower arrives, the highways get snarled due to slippery roads and amnesiac drivers. And in addition to the drains flooding, many people with the joy of living in flat-roof buildings get leaky ceilings.

People start to bust out scarves, sweaters, and winter boots (if they ever took them off, that is). Gloves and coats? Well, if I'm going out at night, especially in SF/Oakland/Berkeley/CC.

A few trees turn color. Not many, not if you're used to fall color. The ginkos don't turn till December.

In the fall people start to talk about snow in the Sierras.
posted by wintersweet at 4:38 PM on October 29, 2013

Oh, and if it really rains in November, I start to get excited about the hills lining 680 (from Fremont up to Pittsburg) starting to blush green. I love it when they become lusciously green in the depth of winter!
posted by wintersweet at 4:40 PM on October 29, 2013

Ugh, sorry, I'm back.

Do people do fall things? Yes, there are autumn harvest events at the regional parks that have working farms (e.g. Ardenwood), and there are pumpkin patches, soup cookoffs, and that kind of thing. Peet's brings out the salted caramel mochas. Half-Moon Bay has their big pumpkin festival and competition. There are corn mazes and haunted houses (there's a famous one at the Pleasanton fairgrounds, used to be in Fremont) and people decorating their houses and apartments for Halloween and Diwali (lights start to appear in October-November depending on the year). There are tons of Halloween events. Apples and grapes hit the farmers' markets. People gear up their fancy fireplaces (and I get asthma, hurray) -- if the temperature dips you can sometimes see smoke overlying valley areas.

October is a high fire danger time if it's dry (see: the Oakland Hills fire -- this year there were countless smaller fires!).

It does feel like autumn in the air sometimes. Other times I'm driving and I ask myself what month it is, because the cues I'm used to aren't there.

You know what, just feel free to message me if you have other questions.
posted by wintersweet at 4:46 PM on October 29, 2013

Traditionally, September is our warmest and sunniest month, with cooling and periodic rain as we move into October and November.

In my experience, young people do not tend to wear heavier coats or gloves at any time of year here, but older folks, very thin people, and people recently relocated from colder places do.

We like Halloween a lot out here and I have occasionally gone to a fall fest, but it's not like the East Coast in this way at all. I think of Fall as Earthquake Season, but maybe that's just me.

In general, there is just less variation by season here, and that is reflected in the way we pretty much do the same stuff year round here, and you can see people in shorts and flip flops 12 months out of the year, but likewise see people in coats almost year round too. It's a little weird that way. I guess I'd say, we don't really think about seasons much.

Note that the weather here has been changing quite noticeably over the last few years with global climate change. For example, the last 12 months have been one of the driest on record and we've had no rain so far this season. Had some weirdly hot days in September this year, and have had some odly cold nights recently.
posted by latkes at 4:55 PM on October 29, 2013

Lots of great information here - I just wanted to echo the observation that the landscape turns green in the fall. The hills are brown, dry in the summer, and the first rains, usually in November and December, turn everything green and it's magnificent.
posted by incessant at 5:08 PM on October 29, 2013

It's generally sunny and warm during the day (60s or 70s) through the first two weeks of October. It's nearly always cool at night, but not enough to see your breath. Staying out from daylight into night means if you're dressed for the former, you'll be chilly in the latter. You're sort of waiting for winter to start through October - you know it's going to happen - it's just a question of when. Winter, such as it is in Northern California, comes suddenly, with a rain or cold (50 degree highs) snap, and that's often it for the nice weather for a few months. Maybe it's not technically winter, but summer is kind of one thing, and winter is occasional rain along with cooler weather. You're not really aware of any of this as a kid. You're just hoping the weather will be good for trick-or-treating, or at least that's how it was when I was a kid, back in the 1850's (or so).
posted by cnc at 5:11 PM on October 29, 2013

Speaking as an inlander from Alameda County: inland is where it will be more likely to be warm and have drastic 40-degree temperature changes every day. You will probably have a few early 80+ degree days in there. It will mostly be around the mid-70's-ish during the day, but around the 40's at night. I can't figure out what to wear for mornings that are cold enough that I should probably be wearing a lighter coat and perhaps gloves, but will be warm enough to be down to one layer (or possibly be wearing shorts) around 1-4 p.m. Some cars are starting to freeze over in the mornings.

Right now mornings are chilly but not bad enough to dress like an Eskimo, temperate during the day. In my experience, the "cold snap" happens within 24 hours (no joke) of the time change--then things will become very cold by CA standards very quickly. We have had the occasional random rainy day, but Rainy Season will not officially start until after the time change cold snap. Your home will perhaps be a little chillier (enough to wear more clothes in the house) but not enough to officially turn the heater on yet.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:14 PM on October 29, 2013

I live in Oakland. Subjectively--a lot of homes are drafty and not well-heated. Many homes don't have central heat--instead they have these wall units in some (but not all) rooms. My aunt referred to these as "fuckingCaliforniawallheaters" which is about how I feel about them. People have insisted to me that sometimes it rains in the summer, but my memory and working assumption at any point between May(ish) and October is that there's no rain. Like, to the extent that I would go camping without bringing raingear.

Fall for me, here, is a lot about the light--the quality and amount of it. It still gets sunny during the day, but that happens later in the day and ends earlier, and the light and shadows have a different quality to them. It's cold in the mornings and at night even if it's warm during the day.

Fall fests and the like - well, there's a pumpkin festival around here, and stores decorate with a fall theme. Produce and food are a big thing here and the giant hippie grocery store in Berkeley has big bins of all kinds of fall squashes (acorn, kabocha, pumpkin, turban, butternut, things I haven't seen before) and that feels authentic to me, unlike, say, the light-up snowflakes that they decorate downtown SF with during the winter which are kind of "are you kidding me? we don't have that kind of winter here, why snowflakes?"

I personally break out sweaters and hats and gloves and warm coats as soon as they feel useful at all because I hate being cold, but I'm often in the minority.
posted by needs more cowbell at 5:27 PM on October 29, 2013

October is when we get summer (all two to three weeks of it!), as referenced in this billboard which was up in Oakland back in June and July.

As mentioned above, much housing in this area, especially rental housing, is underinsulated. Because we don't get severe cold, walls are underinsulated and may have open-all-the-time vents in them (we tape plastic over the vent in our living room wall in the winter, or wedge an impermeable reusable shopping bag in front of it), and windows are usually single-paned. We have to mop up the condensation that forms on the windows every morning when it's cold.

The East Bay doesn't have microclimates, it has picoclimates. Attoclimates. Seriously, it's noticeably colder on Broadway than it is a quarter mile away either side — Broadway acts as a wind tunnel, dropping the temperature. In general, though, October is chilly in the mornings and pleasantly warm in the afternoon, dropping back to chilly by nighttime.
posted by Lexica at 5:53 PM on October 29, 2013

THe thing that always sucked on Halloween as a kid (growing up in Marin which is North Bay but similar weather) was that no matter how cute your costume was, your mom always made you wear a turtleneck underneath it for trick-or-treating because it was cold at night, and that pretty much ruins everything.
posted by radioamy at 6:40 PM on October 29, 2013

Be sure you are taking into account the micro-climates, noted above.

For example, a number of people here have noted that September/October is the warmest time of year. I believe that may be true west of the Berkeley hills (both in Contra Costa and Alameda), but east of the hills, especially in eastern CCC and Alameda (like Brentwood and Livermore), summer is summer. In Concord this summer, it hit 100+ in late June; July and August were mild, but still 85+ most days.

Fall mornings start off cold and occasionally foggy, with the sun burning off the cover into the afternoon, and once the sun starts going down, it cools off quickly. When the sun is gone, the temperature is in the 60s, and drops to the high 40s overnight.
posted by China Grover at 12:44 PM on October 30, 2013

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