Have You Met Karl? The San Franciscan Fog With A Following

© Marc Dalmulder/Flickr
© Marc Dalmulder/Flickr
Photo of Carly Salzberg
10 November 2016

Human psychology has projected and personified the characteristics of fog for centuries. In the Bay Area, that history continues to take shape, as San Franciscans have gone so far as to name it: ‘Karl the fog’. Curiously, Karl the fog has become ubiquitous in the imaginations of many in the Bay Area. According to Twitter, Karl is more popular than Mayor Lee.

With 175K followers on Twitter, @KarlTheFog is now a social media sensation. As the tagline on Karl’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and about.me pages says: “All that is sunny does not glitter, not all those in the fog are lost.” In San Francisco, Karl represents the psychogeography of a city; the very awareness of fog, of Karl, signifies how certain natural phenomena activates an implicit psychological meaning in the human consciousness. Or rather, the imposing of a consciousness on Karl, the fog, is a way in which San Franciscans bring order to what is otherwise a very disorderly — even ‘foggy’ — world.

Historically, Karl has sort of been a menace. The San Francisco fog has been responsible for a great deal of chaos, including but not limited to shipwrecks, plane crashes, travel delays, and other hazardous weather conditions. Alternatively, Karl the fog has been perceived as dramatic and beautifully spell-binding, with a reputation for captivating the countless artists, writers, performers, musicians, and filmmakers who call San Francisco home. American poet Carl Sandburg captured the essence of Karl in his 1916 poem, Fog. He wrote:

“The Fog comes/on little cat feet./It sits looking over harbor and city/on silent haunches/and then moves on.”

Herb Caen, a Chronicle columnist, expressed his adoration for Karl in his 1946 book, Baghdad-by-the-Bay. He describes the cloudy stuff as “newly formed whitish fog filtering through the harp strings of the Golden Gate Bridge and then puffing out its chest as though pleased with its dramatic entrance; but the only applause is the quiet lapping of the waves as they disappear under the silent mass.”

© Sara Jo/Flickr

In October 2013, filmmaker and long-time resident Sam Green premiered his documentary, Fog City, at the Exploratorium as an ode to what he called “a meditation on the beauty and mystery of the Bay Area’s fog.” As a defining yet impermanent piece of the city’s aesthetic, Green chose to shoot the fog with 16mm film in order to capture the raw analogue of the experience.

As mystical as Karl the fog may seem, fog is literally nothing more than a cloud in contact with the land or sea. When hot inland temperatures create a low-pressure zone over Northern California’s Central Valley, the inland air rises and the heavier cold Pacific Ocean air rushes in to take its place. This atmospheric flow from the high to the low pressure zone slowly pulls the fog through the Golden Gate passage and into the Bay.

But who are we kidding? Karl the fog is poetry. As an everlasting natural harbinger of the imagination, Karl doesn’t stop. Just the other day, Karl tweeted, ‘Go home, wind, you’re drunk.’ Be sure to follow him for more weather puns @KarlTheFog, and don’t let Karl’s invisibility put you in a mood. It’s just his nature.

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