Is a volatile winter on the way? Tom Skilling looks at the facts

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CHICAGO — With flurries and maybe even some snow in the forecast for some areas this week, it’s a reminder winter is on its way. It doesn’t feel like too long ago that a brutal blast in late January 2019 sent temperatures plunging to more than 20 below in some areas. And while the arctic chill didn’t stick around too long, it was colder than usual well into spring. Kevin Birk is a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “The interesting thing about last winter is we started off quite mild across the region,” he said. “December was on the warmer side but by the time we got into January the bottom dropped out. We saw snow well into April and people were wondering when are we going to see spring?” And now many are asking, when will we see winter and how bad will it be? The Climate Prediction Center, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, has a few predictions. “Precip wise, the CPC did put our area at enhanced chances for above-average precip thru the winter and even the spring season,” Birk said. “If we trend to be more on the colder side than that will favor more snow for the area.” The team at the National Weather Service in Romeville showed a forecast which calls for an equal chance for above, normal and below average temperatures. “I know that sounds really wishy washy but they just didn’t have enough confidence at this time to push the forecast one way or another,” Birk said. The Weather Service’s Maryland-based winter forecasters face a quandary. Indications this winter’s temps may be volatile could lead to wide swings in temps—warm one week, cold the next. That means the season could average out being normal, even though some periods may be anything but. Ultimately, much depends on what happens in Alaska. “What we look for for these colder winters is to see the jet stream pattern buckle northward,” Birk said. “So we get high pressure over Alaska and the north pacific what that does is it dislodges the cold air over Alaska. And since it has to go somewhere it usually goes straight to the southeast and comes into the Northern United States so what we end up with is a jet stream pattern that comes right into our area.” It’s a pattern that could bring colder and snowier weather than average our way. A low-pressure scenario would bring the opposite. While we wait to see what happens with the jet stream, there’s another pattern we’re quite sure about closer to home. Shedd Aquarium conservation team member Hilary Wind leads clean up and restoration efforts along 12th Street Beach. “Coming here regularly definitely have noticed a change in the coastline in this area,” she said. “When I started working here in 2017, the beach was one whole just beach you could walk from one end of the beach to the other. Now the water actually comes up in the middle and the beach is two separate beaches.” There’s more evidence of rising water levels all along the lakefront. Between Oak Street and North Avenue, a steady flow creeps up over concrete walkways. Fisherman seem undeterred by the water spilling over the Lincoln Park Lagoon. And in Rogers Park, Juneway Beach has disappeared. They are all signs that flooding is a real possibility this winter. All it takes is wind. Albert Sanford is a lead scientist for the National Ocean Service. “It’s about as high as it’s ever been,” Sanford said. “It might be record high if it hasn’t surpassed the record it’s very close.” It’s a statistic confirmed inside this unassuming hut that sits along calumet harbor on the near southside. Sanford is part of a team that maintains a network of 53 water gauges stationed around the Great Lakes. “It’s been here over 100 years collecting water level data right here at this site,” he said. Encoders track the levels. The measurements are then transmitted via satellite to NOAA headquarters and within 18 minutes available to the general public. “To have a structure and a system that measures that at a very accurate level I think is very critical for local forecasters and communities as they plan for the future,” Sanford said. City officials are already planning for the threat of flooding this winter due to those high lake levels. It’s a scenario that played out back in 1987, when lake levels were at an all-time high and a February blizzard caused havoc along the lakefront.
The climate prediction center did have enough confidence to predict warmer than average temps for the southern United States.


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