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Chicago Winters -We are not alone

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Although this winter Chicago is experiencing a cold one, the article below makes interesting reading. If you like cold winters you would die for some of the so called mild winters Chicago have had to endure over the last few years :o

January 29, 2004

Chicago Winters

If you're like me you get tired of listening to all the whining from the East Coast every time they get a little bit of snowy or cold weather. What makes it all the more frustrating is that Chicago winters have become pathetic. Nowdays, we get a few inches and everyone gets all nervous about road closures, but it didn't used to be like that. Go back with me, if you will, to the halcyon winters of yesteryear...

During the winter of 1976-1977 the temperature remained below freezing for 43 consecutive days. During the 1978-1979 winter, 89.7 inches of snow fell during a three month period. A few pictures here and here help you to get the idea. These past few winters, we get a few little wimpy snowstorms and that's it. These things used to be a regular occurence. Pretty soon, kids will have to visit the Digital Snow Museum and especially this page just to figure out what snow is supposed to look like.

I'm not saying that all this is due to Global Warming or anything. To be honest, I have no clue why our winters have become so pathetic. We used to be able to scoff at those out on the east coast because we knew we'd been through much worse and barely said a word. It's a real let down because we haven't had worse and we can't brag anymore.

Just to put it in perspective, here are some little vignettes from NOAA that recount the way winter used to be:

January 25th, 1977: This was the 29th consecutive day where Chicago's High temperature was below freezing. The 43-day long cold snap lasted from December 28th, 1976 through February 8th, 1977 setting the all-time record for the longest period of below freezing temperatures to occur in Chicago. Rockford had two record temperatures set and Chicago had three during this long period.

January 13th, 1979: The "Blizzard of '79" moved into northern Illinois and northwest Indiana. At the time, this date had the greatest calendar-day snowfall of 16.5 inches in Chicago. This storm also contributed to Rockford setting the all-time record snowfall for a single Winter season with a total accumulation of 74.5 inches.

January 14th, 1979: As the "Blizzard of '79" moves off to the East, the region began to dig out of the snow. The greatest snow depth ever recorded for Chicago was set with a measurement of 29 inches on this date.

January 28th, 1979: January of 1979 received 26.1 inches of snowfall in Rockford, making it one of the snowiest Januarys on record for the city. The Winter of 1978-79 had a total of 74.5 inches of snowfall, setting the all-time record for most snowfall in one season ever for the city.

January 8th, 1982: Three days of blizzard conditions started, affecting much of northern Illinois. Though the actual snowfall totals were rather small, around an inch, high winds caused widespread whiteout conditions.

January 10th, 1982: Bitterly cold weather gripped much of the state as most reporting stations recorded Low temperatures of 20 below Zero or colder. Some of the coldest air settled in over much of northern Illinois overnight causing temperatures to plummet to 27 degrees below Zero in Rockford and 26 below in Chicago. The Rockford temperature is the all-time Low temperature on record for the city.

January 20th, 1985: Chicago's O'Hare International Airport recorded the lowest temperature ever reported for Chicago with 27 below Zero. A record Low temperature was also reported at the Rockford Airport with 26 below Zero. Both locations also recorded the minimum High temperature for this date with a High of 4 below Zero in Chicago and 5 below Zero in Rockford.

January 11th, 1991: A 3-day winter storm began across northern Illinois and northwest Indiana. The combination of freezing rain and 35 MPH winds caused extensive damage to trees and power lines. Widespread blackouts occurred over much of the area. The freezing rain changed over to snow during the late evening hours, dumping over 4 inches of new snow by the following morning.

January 3rd, 1996: While the snowstorm of 1999 was the worst New Year's snowstorm in Chicago, northern Illinois was affected by another winter storm on the 2nd and 3rd of 1996. This storm produced up to 8 inches of snow, and 30 to 40 MPH winds created near whiteout conditions across open areas.

January 2nd, 1999: Northern Illinois was in the grips of a severe winter snowstorm, bringing much of the area to a stop. Heavy snow and high winds caused drifts of more than 4 feet in many areas. On this date 18.6 inches of snow fell in Chicago, the greatest single-day snowfall total ever recorded for the city. Over the 3-day storm 21.3 inches of snow fell across portions of the Chicago Metro area.

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It's a bit selective of course... People are accused of cherry-picking the 'good' winters in the UK as well.

The winter of 1977 was extreme by any measurements. Illinois recorded its coldest January on record, as did nine other states.


In fact, of the 48 states in the CONUS, 46 recorded temperatures below normal for the month. Overall, just about the entire Eastern CONUS recorded a top 10 coldest winter that year:


1979 was another blockbuster winter. 28 states recorded a top ten coldest January with Nebraska having the coldest on record.


Winter as a whole was even more astonishing than 1977; 47 of the 48 states in the CONUS recorded below normal winter temperatures (just Maine way up there above normal):


North Dakota recorded an average temperature of 0.4oF for the three month period!

The writer of the article suffers from the same sense of nostalgia of those of us in the UK. I've spoken to many people from Chicago who are about the same age as me and they all say that it doesn't snow as much as it used to. Having lived through some of the coldest and snowiest winters on record, this can be no surprise. Recent winters here have suffered form the same problem as the UK: lack of a negative NAO. A blocking high to the North East of the US 'locks-in' the cold air. The cold still flows down from Canada as it always did, but just as quickly flows back out again. Last February was a bit of an anomaly in this respect, but this year is more typical. A couple of days of highs in the negative-teens Celcius followed by a warmup as the coldest air aloft exits to the East.

There is a piece about the Great Lakes Blizzard of 1977. Winter started very early that year for a lot of people!

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Very true about the winter of 1976-77 starting early, I remember that the lakes in central Ontario were all well frozen during November 1976 which is about six weeks ahead of the normal schedule in that region. That winter ended early too, later February and all of March were quite warm and spring-like, so the winter shifted about a month to six weeks early.

Winters of 1978 and 1979 were cold for longer periods and Feb 1979 not shown in your charts was a very cold month in the Great Lakes region.

Winter 1980 was mild, then 1981 and 1982 were both relatively cold, so the norm for about seven years (1976-82 inclusive) was for cold winters with heavy snowfall. It was therefore all the more jarring to weather conscious observers when 1982-83 turned out to be a very mild winter with almost no snow (speaking here of the Great Lakes region but I'm sure the same impression was more widespread through the northeast and central plains as well).

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Winters of 1978 and 1979 were cold for longer periods and Feb 1979 not shown in your charts was a very cold month in the Great Lakes region.

Here you go (February 1979):


Certainly a lot of very cold winters bunched in a short period!

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Thanks for posting that map, WF ... what I recall about Feb 1979 was that most of the cold anomaly came out of one particular strong high of about 1050 mbs that came down right over top of the Great Lakes region about this time during the month and brought daytime temperatures close to -20 C, nights close to -30 C for several days. The rest of the month was actually fairly normal but those days added up to quite a large deficit. As January had not been all that cold in southern Ontario this was really the only severe part of the winter, March turned out to be fairly warm.

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