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Chicago's winter among the worst in generations

By Mitch Smith, Chicago Tribune
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Feb. 14--The cold has been relentless, the snow keeps piling up and 20 degrees sounds almost tropical. In a city known for harsh winters, could this be the worst one of your lifetime?

The short answer: Quite possibly. But that depends on age and perspective.

Mike McNett, 48, is an avid ice fisherman from Lombard. The insurance worker is also captain of the USA Ice Team and is headed to Belarus this weekend for next week's world ice fishing championships. The Illinois native said he has used this year's cold to hone his craft on area ponds and lakes.

"It's been phenomenal," McNett said. "Some of the days I was out (and it was) 20 below with the wind chill. No shelter for me. I like the cold."

But for those whose hobbies don't involve traipsing across frozen bodies of water, it can be harder to find the silver lining in this season's historic chill. And if this is the nastiest winter you can remember, you might be on to something.

A few cold, hard statistics:

--Chicago has notched 22 days of subzero temperatures this season. You'd have to be at least 32 years old to have experienced the last time that happened -- 1981-82, when Ronald Reagan was in his first term as president and Barack Obama was an undergraduate. The last season Chicago logged more than 22 days below zero was in 1962-63, at 24. You'd have to be 51 to have lived through that.

--If you're younger than 35, you've never seen Chicago get this much snow in a season. The 62.2 inches recorded through Thursday night is the most since 1978-79, when Rahm Emanuel was in his late teens.

--Chicago's 33.7 inches of snow last month were the most in one month since January 1979, when more than 40 inches fell. This January was also the third-snowiest month in the city's recorded history. Only Chicagoans who are 96 or older experienced the snowiest month in January 1918. More than 42 inches fell then, before the 19th Amendment had guaranteed women's right to vote.

Point is, this year has been pretty darn rough. Historically rough. And the combination of heavy snow and extreme chill means there's a case to be made that this is the toughest Chicago winter since the historic misery of the middle and late 1970s.

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"To folks who are young, this will be the worst winter they've seen," said WGN-TV chief meteorologist Tom Skilling. "We went through two decades in which the winters really moderated around here."

Tracey Konicek, who grew up in the suburbs and now lives in the Bucktown neighborhood, said she's accustomed to chilly weather but couldn't remember a Chicago winter this cruel.

"This is very extreme. It's rough. It's not pleasant," said Konicek, 43. "There's cold -- and there's cold."

Konicek, who works out of a home office, said she has stayed inside for days at a time this winter rather than walk a couple of blocks in the elements to a coffee shop.

But Roger Whitmore, 61, who owns an auto repair and towing business in the far north suburbs, hasn't been as impressed by Mother Nature's wrath.

"This is not a bad year," he said. "There's a lot of bad. (In) '82 and '83, the cold was just unbearable compared to this, even. There's been worse things."

He also recounts stories of towing car after car in the late 1970s. So if youthful workers at his Zion auto shop start complaining about this year's weather, the boss is likely to set them straight.

"I've got all young employees, and they think this is so bad," Whitmore said. "And I go, 'Boys this ain't nothing.'"

Jim Angel, Illinois state climatologist, agreed with Skilling that this is Chicago's coldest winter since the series of rough years in the late '70s. Winters like this one, Angel said, are roughly "a once-in-a-lifetime, maybe twice-in-a-lifetime type of experience."

Even for lovers of the cold like McNett, the competitive ice fisherman, there can be too much of a good thing. While the sustained chill makes it easier to find a good spot to drop a line in a pond, deep ice can block sunlight from hitting the water below, meaning the pond ends up without the oxygen needed to support its life forms. Lake County officials have warned of the potential for die-off among fish this winter.

Hope, however, could be on its way in the form of a long-term forecast. High temperatures are expected to remain in the 20s and 30s through the long weekend, according to the National Weather Service, with some potential for snow and mixed precipitation. But Skilling said early models suggest a springlike bounce into the 50s -- maybe even touching 60 -- late next week.

Temperatures may well plunge again after that, the experts said. But in the throes of the worst Chicago winter in a generation, the promise of a thaw counts as progress.

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mitsmith@tribune.com

___

(c)2014 the Chicago Tribune

Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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For Clients with Prostate Cancer