Winter ranks among most severe

CRYSTAL LAKE – It is a tough task for a northern Illinois winter to stand out amongst it predecessors.

There was the legendary Chicago area winter of 1978-79 with one of the largest blizzards and temperatures that dropped below zero more than 20 times. Wind chills sent temperatures to 80 below zero in 1983 and traffic stopped on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago when 21.2 inches of snow fell in the area during February 2011.

Now, the double polar vortex winter of 2013-14 has entered the northern Illinois winter record books with its cold streak.

While Chicago grabs national headlines for the wintry conditions that blow through, winters in McHenry County can be just as severe, though different.

As of Feb. 6, the Chicago area received 68.7 inches of snow from Dec. 1 compared to the 43.8 inches of snow McHenry County received, according to Illinois State Climatologist Jim Angel.

Angel said the heavier snowfall further east is not unusual because of lake-effect snow. But it is also that lake effect that somewhat moderates temperatures near Chicago, Angel said, a luxury those in McHenry County do not have.

McHenry County has experienced colder temperatures this winter, breaking Chicago's record of 25 days of subzero temperatures set in 1884-85. McHenry County recorded 31 days of subzero temperatures, only four less than the county's record.

The run of subzero temperatures included a stretch of more than 60 consecutive hours before the thermometer cracked zero, the second-longest run ever for the area. Even when temperatures were above zero degrees, 71 percent of total winter days were below average temperatures this season, according to WGN Weather.

"Snowfall has been an issue, but the temperature is the most outstanding aspect of this winter," Angel said. "We're not quite breaking records but we're getting very close to those numbers. Having three full months of these temperatures is unusual. It's why people will remember this winter."

The coldest day in McHenry County this winter, disregarding wind chill, was 22 below zero, Angel said.

In the 14 years of working in McHenry County schools, Dave Jenkins said he has never seen a winter quite like this year's.

Jenkins, chief operations officer for Crystal Lake School District 47, said it has been the most severe winter since the area received 60 inches of snow total in the 2007-08 winter, but even then four days of school did not have to be canceled.

The lingering effects of the winter could be costly for the district that has already needed to commit more resources than expected. Jenkins said grounds crews have put in signifcant overtime and the district has used $36,000 worth of salt compared to the $25,000 that was budgeted.

Jenkins said more resources could be needed to patch parking lots that could be pothole ridden from the deep freeze and an internal pipe at South Elementary School already burst this winter and was pegged for repairs.

"Every winter is a challenge," he said. "But I don't remember ever seeing anything to this extent when it comes to the amount of cold days we've had."

Whether these winter conditions become common moving forward is unclear, Angel said, but melting Arctic ice could make it more likely. Angel said less ice cover in the Arctic can destabalize the climate in that region and cause extreme weather in other regions.

While the Midwest has experienced extreme cold, Alaska has experienced record-breaking warm temperatures and California is in the middle of a record-breaking drought.

"It seems like it would be counterintuitive," Angel said of warming Arctic temperatures causing colder weather here. "But some of what is melting is spreading through the wind stream we got this year. We don't really know what to expect. This is new territory."

As McHenry County appears headed out of extreme winter conditions with temperatures expected to be in the 40s this week, Angel said threats still loom.

Angel said he would not be surprised to see temperatures revert back to extreme cold, even if only for a week, and guessed snow events would be possible through mid-March.

But because fairly accurate forecasts only extend out about 10 days, Angel said another possibility could be the 40-degree weather is a sign of things to come and temperatures may rise too fast.

In that scenario, he said, deeply frozen soil would thaw too quickly and any rain event could trigger significant flooding.

"You don't want to warm up too fast," he said. "It would be best to have the snow melt and ground thaw slowly in patches."

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