I began to write a bloggy bit about the intense cold snap we had January 6th through the 8th. I never edited and finished the piece in time to post it when it was still frigid. Thanks to Mother Nature I have another chance. An equally cold spell occurred for January 27th and 28th. Even though I had already posted something about Snow Days, I was compelled to make this piece on this very cold month in the era of global warming my monthly letter.
January 6: It was early December 1989. I was in Louisville, Mississippi. I was working for TRW Seat Belt Systems at the time and we had a plant in Louisville. Louisville was a rural town and not an industrial or business center. We used to stay at a vacation motel, not part of any chain, on small lake. The rooms were modest but the restaurant was distinctively southern. This motel and restaurant, whose name escapes me, most definitely had one leg one leg firmly rooted in the 1950s.
It was unbelievably cold for that part of the country. There was no talk of global warming back in those days. If there was, I was oblivious to it. Without internet we relied on the television and newspapers for the weather. The local television news informed me that the temperature outside was 10 degrees. After breakfast, at the checkout, the nice lady with a wonderfully pleasant Mississippi accent commented "it is really cold weather for us down here, but I bet you are used to it up north where you live?" I responded, "Ma'am, we may get a few more cold days in Detroit than you do down here but 10 degrees is cold for us too."
Today was the coldest day in Chicago for the past twenty years. From sunrise to sunset the temperature did not get above -10 degrees. The headlines of a local Spanish language newspaper simply stated: Brutalmente Frio! Yes, indeed. It is brutally cold by any standard. The weather is supposed to stay below zero until sometime on Wednesday.
It snowed all weekend, but there was no snow today. Yet, all schools were closed. There was no mail delivery nor was there any refuse pickup. The roads were very lightly travelled because the television and internet urged everyone to stay home unless absolutely necessary. People apparently listened.
I am not one to say we were of heartier stock back in my youth. I only mention walking to school six miles both uphill in both directions through four feet of snow as an obvious joke to my students. Yet, I do not recall missing school solely because of cold weather. We would, of course, note the cold and then simply bundle and layer up more before going out.
What freaked people out most was the wind chill which was reported to be between -25 to -60 degrees today. There were reports that at these kinds of temperatures and wind chills, frostbite could begin in about 10-15 minutes. While I did not test the frostbite theory, I did park in front of a coffee shop and left the car without coat or gloves to go the twenty yards or so into the shop. Yep... my hands were really cold when I got into the store. Later, I heard a report that it was so cold that if you threw a glass of water into the air, it would turn into snow. I had never heard of it being that cold ever before. So, I tried it. No snow. The water did quickly freeze be only after being on the ground for a few seconds. Supposedly I should have used boiling water. I hope I do not have to wait twenty years to give this another shot.
January 7: What is the history of this wind chill factor? There are many formulas for calculating what we call the wind chill factor or what is also called the wind chill equivalent. The first formula was developed by a couple of scientists, Charles Passel and Paul Siple, working in Antarctica. The conducted experiments on how long it took water to freeze based on initial temperature of the water, the ambient temperature, and the average wind speed. I can only assume they used regression to develop an equation. Their initial work was heat loss expressed in watts per surface area. Other scientists built off their model to calculate an equivalent temperature with no wind. The formula has been tweaked a few times over years.
Weather services began reporting wind chills in the mid-1960s. That is exactly when I recall hearing it and everyone being terrified by the hyperbole. Since then, on really cold days weathercasters have been reporting both the temperature and the wind chill equivalent. Lately, I have noticed a newer habit of weathercasters only reporting the wind chill temperature. I am not sure I like this change and I am also certain I will have little say in changing how cold weather temperatures are reported. Source for the history of the wind chill factor: Wind Chill: Love It or Hate It, The Term is Here to Stay.
It has been twenty years since we had temperatures this cold. Will it be even longer until we see it again due to global warming? Maybe, and there is no scientific basis for this, we should be calling it is climate disruption wherein we see the temperatures gradually increase but also see more and more extremes in terms of temperatures and storms. It seems just seeing the bigger hurricanes, longer tornado seasons with more vicious storms, torrential rains and floods, tsunamis, early springs, mild winters, following by record setting brutal winters. It seems more complicated than what most of us believe global warming.
Yesterday in New York City, it was 50ish degrees. It will hit a low of 7 this evening and be over 50 by the weekend. It was -15 yesterday in Chicago. Today it was -4, it will be in the 30s over the weekend and the forecast is calling for sleety rain. If you ask me, those are wild swings in temperatures.
It will be interesting to see how the rest of the year develops.
January 24: Shortly after this throw back cold spell, people around here do what people do. They started complaining about the cold and wishing for summer.
I am not complaining. I am really enjoying this frigid month. It reminds me of winters I experienced growing up. It feels right. I am less happy when we have the winters that aren't really winters. Those winters are extended falls that then morph directly into spring.
This is not to say that I have not gotten weary of winter in years past. I recall a couple winters growing up where it seemed like it was gray and overcast for like a month. It was dank, damp, and dark. I definitely wanted those winters to end.
For me, there is no need to fed up with winter. It has snowed. It has been really cold. But, the really cold days were sunny and the skies were clear. It was very nice. Furthermore, it is the 24th of January. March is only 34 days off. Spring is 55 days away. It is almost time to think about getting my bicycles tuned up.
Oddly and not very well publicized, this past Tuesday, January 21st, was Chicago's Annual Winter Bike to Work day. Really? It had snowed that evening. There were a couple of inches of snow on the ground. The car commute took over an hour when it is normally 30 minutes. Even worse, it was five degrees. I could imagine taking any kind of bike ride in those conditions. I did not see any bike riders until I walked to the Starbucks across from North Park University. A young man came out of the store with a cup of coffee to his bike leaning against the wall. I asked how he would ride in these conditions while carrying a cup of coffee. The young fellow said he was planning to walk. He was a student at the Northside College Preparatory High School about a half-mile from where we were. When I asked if he was participating in the Bike to Work Day said this was the first he had heard about it. He commented that he rides his bike to school every day; I guessed out of necessity.
At the campuses I frequent, I do not see students in sandals or shorts this winter. Not this year. Everyone is bundled up. I love it. Heavy coats, layers, hats that cover the ears, and insulated gloves are the uniform of the day. Folks from warmer climes are wrapped in scarfs with only a slit open for their eyes. We have had several snow storms varying from a few inches to outright blizzards.
January 23: In a white out this week in the lake effect region at the south end of Lake Michigan by Michigan City, there was a horrible accident involving 40 cars and eighteen wheelers. Three people were killed. It took the authorities more than 24 hours to clear the road for traffic. I had read about such accidents in Alps. I have never heard of such an accident in the US.
It was a horrible accident. While we are closing schools because of the cold, drivers do not heed the advice when told to get stay off of the roads.
January 27-28: Schools were all closed including the two colleges I teach at. There was no appreciable snow, but still the schools were closed. I imagine that school kids were enjoying their unanticipated time off. Again the schools were closed because of the brutal cold. The temperatures did not get above 5o F and were as low as -115o F.
I have to admit. I enjoyed the unanticipated time off and was certain I was going to get a lot done with the windfall of free time. Sheepishly, I have to admit that I did not get that much done.
I did redo the science experiment that didn’t quite work out. I put boiling water in a mug, went outside and threw the water up into the cold air. Voila, a large part of the water turned to a very fine snow. Cool.
January 29: The Chicago Tribune had an online poll: Is this Chicago’s worst winter? They asked folks to rate select the worst winter from this year, 2011, 1985, 1983, 1982, and 1979. Because people are feeling the here and now more than remembering the then and when, 2014 was the clear winner in this ad hoc poll.
This poll made me curious. I looked at the average January temperatures in Chicago from 1950 to 2014. The average temperature was 15o F this month. This is the coldest January since 1985 when the average monthly temperature was also 15o F. In the 64 year span, there were four Januaries when the average temperature was colder than we experienced this year: 1982, 1979, 1977, and 1963 when the average temperatures were 12o F, 13o F, 11o F, and 12o F respectively.
So this is the coldest January in 29 years. It is clear why the Chicago Tribune Poll turned out like it did. Approximately half of the people alive today weren’t born then. The half that were, probably do not remember those cold Januarys in the 70s and 80s as the this year’s which is front and center in our consciousness.
Since I collected this data, I wanted to see if global warming was at play, so I ran a regression. The slope of the regression line was .044 o F which means the model says that the temperature is rising .044 o each year. That is not a lot but it is an increase. Further analysis shows that this liner model is only accounting, however, for a paltry 2.4% of the variation in average temperatures. I am, therefore, not very excited about this model.
Let's see what February has in store for us...