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Extremely Inclement Weather

'A beautiful day for kayaking'


As the waves of Lake Michigan roar at Montrose Beach, Paul Doughty shoves a kayak holding his pal Stephen Gross into the water.

"Weather be damned," says Doughty, a 37-year-old professional photographer wearing a tan dry suit and yellow helmet on this bitingly windy April afternoon. "This is a beautiful day for kayaking."

With the variety of weather that pummels the city throughout the year--from snowstorms and thunderstorms to severe heat--living in Chicago means being willing to enjoy outdoor hobbies and extreme sports in all sorts of conditions.

And those conditions can change at the drop of a raindrop, indicated by the all too common saying, "If you don't like the weather, wait five minutes."

The day Doughty and Gross decided to brave the winds and go kayaking, the city was experiencing 50-degree weather with temperatures along the lake in the 40s. Three days later, 70-degree temperatures had many residents sporting tank tops.

"Chicago's crazy, period," CTA bus driver Nelson Santos says as he maneuvers the Number 78 bus through Uptown. "Sometimes you can have all the seasons in less than a week."

Tornados beware

Chicago seasons are often impacted by the lake, which acts as both friend and foe when it comes to the city's weather.

"That lake has a big influence on the weather," says Henry Margusity, a meteorologist for Accuweather.com. "In the wintertime the wind comes out of the northeast. You can actually have lake effect snow in Chicago. Often the temperatures are affected by the lake."

During tornado season in the spring, Margusity says he believes it is actually Lake Michigan that protects Chicago from being terrorized by twisters.

"Thunderstorms as they start approaching the downtown area tend to weaken because of the lake," Margusity says. "I've seen it many times where there'll be tornados west of Chicago, and they'll weaken as they come into Chicago."

Margusity credits this to the amount of cool air that thunderstorms draw in as they approach the city.

Twisters still possible

But while Margusity points to the lake as to why tornados never rip through the Loop, Andrew Krein, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Romeovlle, says something else is at play--luck.

"There's no physical reason why the city could not have a major tornado hit," Krein says. "That's just luck of the draw. Major cities have been hit with tornados before."

Some large cities Krein cites as examples include Oklahoma City, Fort Worth, Texas and Lubbock, Texas.

Historically, Chicago has experienced its own tornados, according to the Chicago Public Library's Deaths, Disturbances, Disasters and Disorders Web page (www.chicagopubliclibrary.org/004chicago/chidisaster.html). While the site notes that tornados are five times more likely to strike in the suburbs than the city, it mentions five instances when tornados have occurred in the city limits, including May 23, 1896 and April 6, 1912, when tornados demolished multiple homes in Norwood Park.

Tornados also visited the city on April 29, 1909 and March 4, 1961, according to the Web site, when a twister struck the South Side and killed one person. Another person was killed on April 21, 1967, when a tornado that was among many to hit the Midwest that day traveled from Oak Lawn to Lake Michigan.

"People should be concerned," Krein says. "It could happen. I'm not saying it could happen tomorrow, but there's no reason why it couldn't."

Creating a tornado requires winds to change directions with height, Margusity says, explaining that tornados originate from thunderstorms that begin to rotate.

"You know the ice skater effect," Margusity says. "The ice skater sticks her arms out and starts spinning slow, and then she pulls her arms in and spins faster. In general, the thunderstorm acts like an ice skater. It takes a large scale spin, brings it in smaller and then produces a tornado out of it."

Heat: an urban danger

The greatest weather-related danger in Chicago may not be severe storms, though. Instead, it's probably extreme heat. In the summertime, Margusity says, the city bakes as the sun beats down on the concrete, which holds in the heat.

"The city acts like a heat island," he says.

Chicago's most recent horrific heat wave occurred in July 1995 and killed more than 700 people. Eric Klinenberg outlines the tragedy in his 2002 book, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago.

On July 13 of that year, temperatures in Chicago reached 106 degrees, and by July 20, 739 residents were dead, according to Klinenberg's book. Most of the victims fit a certain criteria, says the author, a New York University associate professor of sociology, pointing out that they tended to be elderly and isolated.

"They [the deaths] were also concentrated in Chicago's abandoned neighborhoods, places that have seen drastic population loss and loss of the social and economical infrastructure that facilitates neighborhood life," he says. "People died alone in places where local conditions encouraged social withdrawal rather than social contact."

Although Klinenberg now says he commends the city for the development of a first-rate heat emergency plan after the 1995 disaster, he stresses that the social problems that caused people to die alone in the first place still exist today.

"The insistence that Chicago's frail citizens be treated like consumers in a market of public goods continues to place city residents at risk," Klinenberg says. "Given global warming, we're likely to see more extreme summer weather, and we need to be prepared."

Global warming and more tolerable winters

When it comes to the issue of global warming, opinions at the National Weather Service in Romeoville vary. Although Krein admits there has been a change in the weather in recent years, with what seems like skipping spring, directly going from winter to summer and he says there is not enough evidence to declare a pattern.

"I think one or two years in a row doesn't count as a long-term trend," he says.

As for Chicagoans who insist the winters are becoming less severe in terms of snowfall, Krein disputes that theory by pointing out that this year's snowfall recorded at O'Hare International Airport was 39.4 inches, while average snowfall at the airport is 36.4 inches.

"The thing is people remember back from their childhood," Krein says. "You think of things being bigger than what it was because you were smaller. The snow up to your knees as a 6-year-old is different from the snow up to your knees as an adult."

National Weather Service Meteorologist Jim Allsopp acknowledges that in the last 10 years, the area has experienced some milder winters, much different from the extreme cold he says occurred in the area during the 1970s and 1980s.

"There's no way of saying this is a permanent feature that's going to stay that way," he says. "Is it global warming? Possibly. There's really not enough data to say why we're having milder winters."

If winters in Chicago are becoming tamer, it is a welcome concept to some local green thumbs. Both a mild summer and winter in 2004 made for a particularly decent growing season, says John Raffetto, a horticulturist for the Garfield Park Conservatory.

"Perennial plants came in fuller," Raffetto says. "The leaves on the trees were pretty lush. I saw annuals and flowers still growing in late November. It was nice. It was closer to what we would perceive as an ideal growing season."

A shaker in Chi-Town?

Blizzards, thunderstorms, heat and skin-cracking winds are bad enough, but what about earthquakes? Earthquakes do occasionally occur in Illinois, though they are small and usually in the southern portion of the state, says Robert Herrmann, professor of geophysics at St. Louis University.

Last June, a 4.5 magnitude earthquake that occurred in the LaSalle-Peru area was noticed by many in Chicago, Herrmann says. "It was certainly a good shaker and well-felt."

That particular earthquake occurred in about the same location as a similar size earthquake on Sept. 15, 1972, Herrmann says.

Extremely deep, ancient faults run through the Wabash Valley, located on the border between southeastern Illinois and southwestern Indiana, he says.

"The thing is: do earthquakes cause the faults or do the earthquakes occur on the faults?" Herrmann asks. "We know that is an active region. There's just not enough data yet to define a pattern."

Should an earthquake ever shake Chicago, the chances of one creating a tsunami in Lake Michigan are rare, says Rus Wheeler, a geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver, Colo. In addition to earthquakes being scarce in the area, the lake is not big or deep enough to create a tsunami.

"A big one could happen tomorrow and prove me wrong, but I wouldn't bet on it," he says. "Winter storms are a much bigger threat."

At Montrose Beach, Gross's kayak bobs up and down violently on the waves, rolling at some points and causing its passenger to become soaked in the cold water. Doughty, who has been out on Lake Michigan in 35-degree weather, watches from the shore, recalling his own experience of going overboard in his kayak earlier. To Doughty, adapting to the constantly changing weather in the area is what living in Chicago is all about.

"There's no weather like it," he says. "It's Chicago."

Published: June 01, 2005
Issue: Summer 2005


Weather, Children & Photography
This was a great article. I'm constantly amazed at how unique and interesting your content is. As a photographer of children in Chicago, weather is a constant issue I'm having to deal with so I can totally relate to your view point. Thanks again for writing such a well thought-out piece. It definitely keeps me coming back.
shalimar, Aug-04-2009