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Patrons at Alterra at the Lake, an erstwhile river flushing station.

Visitors bask in the sunlight at Alterra at the Lake in Milwaukee, ranked #8 among U.S. cities with the most comfortable summer weather.

Photograph by Catherine Karnow, National Geographic

Jane J. Lee

National Geographic

Published July 19, 2013

The southwest is baking. The East Coast is sweltering. So where do you find relief? If you're one of the unfortunate Americans suffering through the recent heat, you might want to check out this list of the top ten major U.S. metropolitan areas with comfortable summer climes.

Some of these places are known for their mild summer weather—Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco are the top three. (Related: "California Keeps Its Energy Cool in Summer Scorcher.")

Others, including Buffalo, New York (#6); Salt Lake City, Utah (#7); and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (#10) might not come to mind as great summertime cities.

"Anything east of the Rockies I'm surprised about," said Bert Sperling, president of Sperling's BestPlaces, the company that formulated the rankings. The former accountant and industrial engineer has over 30 years of experience looking at the quality of life in cities around the country, and founded Money Magazine's annual list of Best Places to Live.

"Thanks to the barrier of the Rocky Mountains, the West is almost immune to the stifling humidity of the Midwest and Eastern United States," Sperling wrote on his BestPlaces blog.

And when it comes to measuring how hot it feels—or the heat index—humidity is the key factor, said Paul Stokols, a meteorologist with the U.S. National Weather Service.

"When your perspiration evaporates, it cools you down," Stokols explained. "The higher the humidity, the longer it takes to evaporate the moisture on your skin, and the longer it takes to cool down." (Related: "How 100 Degrees Does a Number on You.")

When calculating his heat index, Sperling included information about a city's daily high temperature, its nighttime low, and its dew point, drawing from 30-year averages released by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (Related: "How Much Heat Can One Man Handle?")

Sperling included nighttime low temperatures, which not every heat index considers, because cooler nights allow people to recover from daytime heat.

If they don't get that respite, then heat stresses on the body can accumulate, explained the National Weather Service's Stokols. "It's a kind of silent hazard. It doesn't hit you in the face—it just slowly wears you out." (Learn more about how heat affects you.)

"Every city in the U.S. is going to have uncomfortable, sticky weather at times," Sperling said. "But your chances of having a nice summer are much, much greater in these cities [on the list]."

Surprised Pittsburghers

But not everyone agrees with the list. Twenty-year-old Alexa Bolock, a third-year undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh, was surprised that her college town was on the list.

"Today it's 94 and this whole week has been in the mid-90s," she said. "When I get to the bus, I don't know if I'm sweating or if it's the humidity."

Lucy Leitner, a 30-year-old writer who's lived in Pittsburgh for 12 years, was also surprised to see her city on the list. Pittsburghers love to complain about the weather, she says, but she acknowledges that although the temperature can climb into the 90s, "it's really not that bad in terms of humidity."

Craig Kanalley, a 27-year-old born and raised in Buffalo, wasn't surprised at his city's inclusion. "I've lived in Chicago and I've lived in New York City before, and I think Buffalo just has awesome summers," he said. "If you go by the water, there's a nice breeze, especially toward nighttime." (Explore how National Geographic photographers have captured heat.)

"If you're going to take a road trip with your family, these would be my top spots to check out—even Detroit," said Sperling.

But maybe you shouldn't go this week. Today's weather stats: at 5 p.m, it was 89°F with 71 percent humidity in the motor city.

Follow Jane J. Lee on Twitter.

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