Exploring Illinois' Winter on the Prairie

Uploaded by geoscienceEIU on 17.10.2011

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You walk out into the frigid morning
air, a blanket of frost covers the dead grass.
Very little green is visible from the rising sun.
You see people bundled from head to toe with the wind whipping
around them, their breath condenses in the chilly air and
leaves white clouds in front of their faces.
You hustle along trying to keep out the cold air as best you
can, staying hunched over, arms wrapped around you.
A light snow begins to fall to the ground as the wind drives it
into your unprotected face.
You're soon able to escape the bitter chill as you make it into
the warmth and protection of your home.
This is a scene that many witnessed over the years that
involve the climate that some call
"unbeatable" during the winter months.
Living in a climate that is extremely hot during the summer
and bone chilling during the winter, can be extremely
difficult to adjust for some who are new to the area.
Temperatures can drop well below zero and when you include the
wind and snow storms with that, for some, it can be considered a
very difficult place to live.
Having to shovel sidewalks and roadways, dealing with blinding
road conditions that make travel near impossible, there are many
different angles that one can take when
discussing winter on the prairie.
One aspect would be one of a desolate land with little
sunlight or vegetation.
Where blizzards and severe weather can occur at a moment's
notice to leave someone stranded and trapped.
A very depressing view if you were to only look
at it from this perspective.
When looking at it this way, one would question the
reasons of anyone who would want to live here.
This is the standard view that most people have, the one that
just scratches the surface of what it is like
to live here in this region.
Even though the land may appear to be dead,
it is abundant and teeming with life.
Just because the winds are soaring and the temperatures are
freezing, the wildlife does not just curl
up and sleep all winter.
The plains are a buzz with life through these trying months.
The white tailed dear, the Illinois state animal, is
extremely common during this time, almost dangerously so.
Hunting is one of the most popular sports in the region and
people wake up well before dawn to go participate.
Some think it would not be worth it, but tell that to any hunter
and they say the thrill is well worth it.
Many people might think that being outdoors is the last
thing people want to do during this time,
this is simply not true.
After living here, you begin to get accustomed
with the regional temperatures.
You look forward to seeing that first snowfall piling up, even
though it may mean extra work for some, it represents
recreation for others.
Being away from the snow for seven to nine months at a time
means some begin to miss its subtle beauty.
Children, of course, pray for those heavy snowfalls that mean
days off of school, having fun in the winter wonderland.
Staring across an open field, covered by a fresh, undisturbed
blanket of snow, is indeed a beautiful sight.
This would be the other angle that people could take during
this period of blustery chilly weather.
With the proper protection from the elements, this weather can
almost be enjoyable to some.
With a snowsuit and heavy winter clothes on, is usually all it
takes to beat the elements during the daylight hours.
On those frigid nights, some would pass the time by enjoying
the comfort of a warm fire wrapped in a blanket,
with a cup of hot chocolate.
And on those nights, the sky is extremely clear and watching the
snowfall can take your breath away.
Think about the way the normal winter affects your daily life.
Shoveling snow everyday from your driveway, walking through
the cold to get the mail or from your car, or
snowstorms making driving impossible.
Winter seems to last forever when
it's an inconvenience to our daily lives.
Now imagine living through one of Illinois' worst snow storms
in the 1800s with no heat besides the feeble fire you had
to build yourself, in a log home with no insulation.
The cold is only one battle residents of central and
southern Illinois had to fight during the winter of 1830-1831.
It started on December 20th with a cold rain, and by Christmas
Eve, the sleet and snow had begun.
Along with the piling snow, there were maddening winds
that made it impossible for a man to walk
against for any reasonable amount of time.
An early settler by the name of Dr. Julian M.
Stertevant, who was in Jacksonville, Illinois to help
start Illinois College, wrote one of the best testimonials to
this incredible winter storm.
>> male narrator: For weeks, certainly for
not less than two weeks, the mercury in the thermometer
tube was not, on any one morning, higher than
12 degrees below zero.
The wind was a steady, fierce gale
from the northwest day and night.
The air was filled with flying snow, which blinded the eyes and
almost stopped the breath of anyone who attempted to face it.
>> Caitlin: Transportation was at a
dead stop during this event.
A man and his wife, along with their six children that
attempted to make their way through the storm by wagon, were
found dead huddled together next to their waggon that was half
covered in snow, and they weren't the
only people to not make it.
When a person did dare an attempt to venture out into the
six foot snow drifts and strong northwesternly winds, tracks
made by a team and wagon would be covered up before they even
turned around to return.
But it was absolutely necessary to leave the
home in order to get food or fuel.
Cutting down trees to burn for heat was almost impossible
because of the wind and snow, but was made even more difficult
because of the frozen moisture in all of the trees.
But it had to be done in order to survive.
Many people who were just moving into the area from the south,
had not yet finished building their
homes before the winter hit.
The cold, snow, and wind, caught them by surprise.
From one testimony, there were entire villages of 50 living in
just two houses that had chimneys and four walls in the
entire community.
Sometimes a tiny fire was just not enough to get the citizens
of Illinois warm during this event.
Clothes had to be piled on, along with blankets and as many
other layers as possible to survive.
Wild animals such as dear, bison, and birds, died off in
the hundreds due to starvation or being trapped in the cold and
killed by other starving predators.
John Buckles who was a resident of central Illinois at the time
said that the wild dear became tame with hunger and would even
walk up to the door of his cabin to be fed.
Hogs, poultry, and other stock died off in great numbers from
the cold and hunger because corn could not be gathered from
beneath the piles of snow to feed them.
If you ever find yourself angered with the inconveniences
of winter again, think back to the snowstorm of 1830-1831,
a snowstorm that has defined Illinois winters,
the winter that proves the full capabilities
of Illinois' climate.
Food, transportation, fuel, and even the wildlife were even
affected by this monstrous storm for 80 days.
Wind, ice, snow, sleet and cold ravaged Illinois warning us that
our climate may not be as tame as we think.
In the days before computers and a vast amount of weather
information at our fingertips, people would find patterns in
nature that could forecast the weather for the next day or in
the upcoming season.
While the woolly worm and colors of the morning sky said
something of what we could expect, the persimmon seed is
probably the most unique.
The forecast for the upcoming winter was obtained when the
persimmon was opened up and the seed investigated.
To read the forecast from a persimmon seed,
you must slice it open.
If the interior portion of the seed had the appearance of a
spoon, winter ahead would be a very snowy one, so much snow
that you would have to use a shovel all season long.
If the shape was like a knife, it would
indicate a very cold winter.
The old saying, "The wind would cut you like a knife,"
probably came from the persimmon seed forecast.
Finally, the mildest forecast for the upcoming winter is when
the seed is shaped like a fork.
Today we have many different scientific instruments that
observe and record data from various parts of the world.
Each of these instruments and data sets can be used to
determine the long term forecast.
One of the data variables that climatologists and
meteorologists use determine what our winter will be like, is
the El Nino southern oscillation.
This long term pattern of shifting pressure systems in the
equatorial Pacific can give a general idea of what we can
expect in the season ahead.
It does not use specific numbers or amounts, but tells us if the
temperature and precipitation will be above or below normal
compared to the long term climate.
The persimmon seed tells us something different.
Although the folklore of the persimmon seed is entertaining,
to see how it will predict the upcoming season, it is not a
proven scientific forecast, nor is it accurate.
In fact, the persimmon is recording the conditions where
it grew up since spring.
It is taking into account the location where it grew,
the amount of sunlight, precipitation,
temperature, and possibly the proximity to humanity.
It does not record with the greatest accuracy what we can
expect in the months ahead.
Whether it be the mighty halo, or the mysterious persimmon seed
silverware, weather folklore remains a tool used by seasoned
farmers and hopeful hearts all over the countryside.
The woolly worm, aka the woolly bear, is actually the Isabella
Tiger Moth in its larval stage and remains to this day part of
the folklore prediction process.
The woolly bear is a piny caterpillar in the shade of dark
brown or black at both ends with a reddish-orange band in the
middle of its body.
The orange band can either be very narrow, or very wide and is
the key to the entire predicting process.
Some towns hold annual woolly worm festivals in the fall,
complete with caterpillar races and an official declaration of
the woolly worm's prediction for that winter.
Where the story began is unsure to this day, be it from Indian
lore or simply a wive's tale, or even to many more a scientific
certainty, the overall belief is that the wider the orange band
the milder the winter will be, and the narrower it is,
the colder and harsher winter will be.
The question is, do the predictions hold water?
Dr. C.H. Curran, former curator of insects at
the American Museum of Natural History in
New York City, tested the woolly worm's
accuracy in the 1950s.
His surveys found an 80% accuracy rate for the woolly
worm's weather predictions, however, many remain skeptical
of the various myths and legends including the woolly worm, and
its place in modern day weather predicting.
During the winter months in Illinois, we're affected by many
different winter storms.
These winter storms do tend to stick to the three basic tracks.
The first track developing in Alberta, Canada known as the
Alberta Clipper system, starts to make its way through the
Great Lakes and moves very quickly in fact but it has a
very low moisture content associated with it.
Moving through the Great Plains and off towards the northeast
through the Great Lakes, not picking up a whole lot of water
content with it.
The next storm track who we'll be talking about is the
Colorado Low pressure.
Now this does develop around the Colorado and Four Corners
region, making its way through the southern plains, not a whole
lot of bodies of water for this to feed of moisture so it does
have a moderate amount of moisture and
it moves at a moderate speed.
Finally, the last storm track that we are influenced by is the
Inside Leader system.
Now this one also develops around the Four Corners and the
New Mexico region making its way very slowly but you can see it
does move through the Gulf of Mexico, picking up
quite a bit of moisture content as it travels
off toward the northeast.
So these storm tracks over the winter months can bring us
varying amounts of precipitation, but we can also
see many different kinds of precipitation also.
Winter can be a peaceful time with periodic gentle snowfalls
and an occasional glistening of ice crystals
floating across the landscape.
But sometimes the most harshest conditions prevail when gusty
winds blow snow from one part of the state to another.
Blizzards and ice storms are less enjoyable winter
experiences, except for children wanting
an official snow day from school.
Blizzards are the combination of cold temperatures and strong
winds that blow across the landscape reducing visibilities.
The National Weather Service defines a blizzard as a storm
which contains large amounts of snow or blowing snow, with winds
greater than 35 mph for more than three hours.
Driving in such conditions would be unbearable
and extremely dangerous.
Not only would driving in a blizzard be difficult but snow
drifts make getting out of the house or down
a street extremely difficult.
Some people think that a blizzard must have snowfall.
All that is really necessary is a previous snowfall on the
ground, it is the strong winds that pick up the
snow and blow it all around.
Whiteout conditions are more likely to occur if extremely
cold temperatures are in place causing the
snow to be light and powdery.
The lighter the snow, the better chance it has of
being picked up by the wind and blown
around reducing visibility to only a few feet.
Blizzards develop in the northern portion of the United
States between the Great Plains and the Atlantic Coast.
A key signature of a blizzard is a storm system.
If a storm system deepens in pressure the winds intensify
with the deepening.
Sometimes these storms with a large drop in pressure, are
referred to as white hurricanes, due to their central pressures
being similar to a hurricane's pressure.
Blowing snow is a bit easier to deal with than accumulation of
heavy ice on trees and power lines that can damage cars and
homes and make travel extremely dangerous.
The National Weather Service defines an ice storm as a storm
that produces a significant accumulation of ice during
freezing rain.
When freezing rain develops and falls on already cold surfaces
it coats any object it hits.
Over several hours of freezing rain, objects can be completely
encased by ice nearly half to two inches thick.
The main culprit of ice storms is slow moving warm air masses
from the south that migrate over extremely
cold air at the surface.
If precipitation falls through the warm air mass,
it is similar to rain.
However, if it falls through really cold air, it becomes
super cooled.
If super cooled rain hits a cold object, it instantly freezes.
If the column of cold air is much thicker, then the super
cooled rain becomes an ice crystal, reducing the harmful
influence on objects.
When an ice storm or blizzard approaches, it is best to stay
home and ride the storm out.
Traveling increases risk of accidents
and unnecessary injuries.
It is likely that with these storms that electricity will go
out, so develop a plan of action that includes: what supplies you
will need to keep your family warm and food available for a
few hours or even a few days.
These storms are known to thrust the most modern families back
into days when stories and diaries were the form of
So have your favorite book or board game handy to rejuvenate
that much needed family time.
On the morning of January 6, 2010, we had a low pressure
system that was building over the Texas panhandle and the
Oklahoma panhandle regions, which was being fed by strong
warm winds out of the southeast off of the Gulf of Mexico which
are being driven by this high pressure system that was sitting
over the Mississippi and Alabama areas.
During the January 6 afternoon and the end of the evening, the
slow pressure system moved to the northeast, bringing with it
those moist winds off the Gulf of Mexico, and as this low
pressure strengthened it also brought in strong cold winds off
the Great Plains and into the midwest which was these cold
temperatures intersected the warm moist air coming off the
Gulf of Mexico produced ample amounts of snowfall across
the state, especially in the central and
southern ports of the area.
Over the course of January 7th and into the 8th, this low
pressure system moved further to the east, still bringing plenty
of snowfall across the areas, especially in
the eastern parts of Illinois.
It also brought strong northeast winds on its backside which as
they crossed the Great Lakes produced lake effect snow in the
Chicago area bringing an additional 6-7 inches of snow to
the area and forcing the closures of more highways and
interstates over the course of January 8th.
Crossing the state, the heart of the low pressure system passed
directly over central Illinois in the early morning hours of
the 7th, dumping a hefty amount of snow across the state,
especially in the west central region.
The heaviest amount totaled 8.2 inches and is recorded in
Galesburg around 7am on the morning of the 7th of January.
In addition to these snow totals, winds were recorded from
all points on the compass in Illinois due to the center of
low pressure being over the state with wind
speeds in excess of over 20 mph.
These winds helped to create low visibility conditions,
especially in the central and the northern parts of the state,
the snow is much drier and more easily blown about.
This blowing snow prompted dangerous driving conditions and
the advisories and closings of most interstates and highways
across central and northern Illinois.
By the afternoon of January 7th the system was moving eastward
over Indiana and Ohio bringing behind a sharply colder
temperatures moving into the region with lows in the single
digits across central Illinois on the night of
January 7th into the 8th.
Thankfully though, into the morning of January 9th, strong
high pressure had finally moved into the region, helping to
stabilize weather conditions and bring a definite end
to the snow storm in Illinois.
Heavy, white, glistening snowfally, to some it's a chance
to get out and have snowball fights with friends, and build
memories by building snowmen with family, but for others,
it's a time to work and keep people safe on the roadways.
Driving during winter can be treacherous because you never
know what to expect on the roadways,
especially when it comes to ice.
But Charleston streets superintendent Quincy Combs says
there's a mixture behind how they can fix these problems to
make it easier on drivers when they're hitting the streets.
You need to be aware that bridges freeze before the
streets do because of the cold air passing under the bridge the
pavement becomes colder quicker so obviously frost gathers on
that bridge so bridges become slick really a lot faster than
the streets do.
And so we try to treat the streets, the bridges early with
a salt brine compound, it's a salt water that we spray on
there that will dry on there and leave a salt film to prevent
that frost from happening.
>> LaMar: Though road crews are working
day and night to keep the streets safe, there
are still unknown conditions that has caused some
drivers to experience how winter weather
can take a toll on not only your driving but as well as your car.
>> Quincy: Beware of the snow plows
moving around, if they can't see you in their
mirrors then obviously, basically if you can't
see them they can't see you.
So stay back away from the snow plows, you know
give them plenty of room to work.
Biggest thing is be prepared early.
>> LaMar: So whether you're heading
to work, school, or anywhere in the snow,
there are just a few tips you can take
from some drivers who've been in the same circumstances when it
comes to driving on wintery roads.
>> male speaker: One time my brakes
actually froze when I got in the car so they actually didn't
work, so there was a really weird spinning on the road.
So I've had some bad experience with ice on the road.
>> LaMar: And road officials also
want you to be safe so you can have safe
travels to your destination.
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When the weather gets cold in Illinois, we not only see the
climax of a thrilling football season, but we see the beginning
of an exciting indoor sports season as well.
The major winter sports played and viewed in Illinois consist
of activities such as hockey, badminton,
wrestling, and basketball.
While hockey is gaining popularity, basketball is still
more popular with Illinoisans.
With high school basketball giving almost all towns
something to come together and cheer about, it will remain
number one in the hearts of Illinoisans for years to come.
Basketball in Illinois, especially when you get to March
Madness, it does have a special appeal to everyone in the state
because it is really the oldest of the state tournaments in a
lot of ways, so I think that has a lot of attachments to people,
and I think that with the new four class system, that's kind
of taken away from that a bit, but I think that it's still a
very popular sport and will continue to be a popular sport.
>> John: While basketball may
be Illinois' first winter love, other sports
are available to give individuals opportunities
that otherwise they may not have during the winter season.
The sport of wrestling is a perfect example of this.
It is a winter sport that isn't always that well known or
supported but gives athletes a reason to stay in
shape and be part of a team.
When otherwise there would be nothing to do in the cold
weather, wrestling is also something that can help keep our
youth out of trouble.
I don't know if it brings more excitement, I think it just
brings more people indoors to watch it, whereas if the climate
was a little better, they might be doing
outdoor activities and so forth.
It's on and people focus on it, and again I think it's a bit of
a highlight to look forward to when there's not a whole lot you
can do in terms of leisure activity with
the weather and restrictions.
You've got a lot of people that obviously wrestling, which is my
sport, they've had such a passion for it that they tend to
bring their kids along.
Also they have a good kids club program to get
youth involved is important as well.
And I know for me as a coach here at the high school it's
important for me to try and walk the hallways and get freshman
and sophomores the younger kids just to come out and see that
wrestling is an enjoyable sport that it's fun and that it can
really keep you in shape and really get you in better shape
for the next sport in spring.
>> John: While sports such as
basketball and wrestling are just starting up,
the thrilling football season is coming to an end.
Many would argue that winter is the best season for football and
the most exciting time to watch a game.
During the cold winter season, many gather around their
televisions in hopes that their teams can win the big game.
>> Brian: Only the winter season is
able to bring many the dreams of a championship for their team.
Brian: I think most people associate
the fall climate with football, and
football with the fall climate.
So when that crisp cool air begins to blow, I without
question, you think of the marching bands, the tailgating
and associate the two together.
>> Trevor: I think it's a good thing for
the fans but more importantly for the
players because there is there, if you wouldn't
have a holiday tournament over Christmas break
from the schools, I think that would be very difficult to keep
teams as sharp, I think it keeps the season going because
basketball really is the longest season and that's one thing I
think that it's hard for sometimes for families for that.
But for players like that it's going to be two or three years
that's going to be part of your life, I think it builds memories
for a long, long time.
>> Brian: I think it's nice.
Families don't often times get to spend a lot of time together,
and if they get together whether it be around the dinner table or
around the TV to watch a ball game, that's great.
The winter months, there's really not a whole lot to do and
if you can get excitement and some sort of buildup at home to
get you through the dreary days, so be it,
let it be around football.
>> Trevor: For me, as far as a coach,
I've always said, "I'll coach the same
way whether the gym's full or empty."
But there is that, when you think back, the sentimental
factor of the gym its full, and it's cold when you go in and you
smell the popcorn in the air and everything and it does, as I get
older especially, means more and more to me to be able to coach
in that type of atmosphere, and that sort of game.
For the kids, I don't think they realize it, I think they will
you know 20, 30 years down the road, and that's the way I was
when I was playing because you're always saying you're
going to play the next game.
So the gym and that is just very symbolic of Illinois basketball.
>> John: Winter sports in Illinois
give fans and athletes excitement when they
can't be outside doing other things.
When the temperatures are in the teens and the snow is falling,
sports will always give Illinoisans something to turn to
in the dreary season.
Many people have different opinions on winter.
For some it is a time of family get togethers
and fun in the snow.
For others it is about cold, sicknesses,
and possible accidents.
These are some EIU student's opinions on winter.
>> male speaker: What I like about winter
is the joyous spirit during the holidays, and of course the
holidays, and another thing I love about winter is
the majority of my families' birthdays.
>> female speaker: Well, I love winter
for multiple reasons.
One, because winter is like the cleanest season out of the year.
In the summertime all the germs can just live in the air because
it's warm outside, and winter it's very clear and it's crisp.
>> male speaker: I like winter because
of hanging out with friends, having snowball fights,
going out in the field with my dog, running around
with him and just overall snow.
>> female speaker: What I like about winter
is the Christmas feeling about it and the snow,
just makes the season much brighter.
>> male speaker: I really like having like
the ability to go out and have snowball
fights and run around outside with my dog
and then being able to like cuddle up next to a fire and
like watch a movie and have some hot cocoa.
>> male speaker: I would say I have
to like winter because it's not summer, and the cold you can
always bundle up and be comfortable but in the
summertime you can only take off so many
clothes and you're still miserable.
When thinking about an Illinois winter you may think of a new
beginning or a time when the frigid cold air is nothing
but crisp and still.
You may think that winter's more quiet as cars are not making as
much noise on the roads and animals are all sleeping.
But whatever comes to mind when thinking about winter it's
certain, this land of Lincoln is also a state of snow, and for
about four months everything is cold and icy, white and serene.
As the sun gradually lowers in the sky in the northern
hemisphere during the fall season, cold arctic and polar
air masses begin to intrude farther and farther south into
the United States.
When these frigid polar air masses make their way farther
south, a disturbance forms along the boundary between the cold
polar air and the relatively warm tropical
air causing winter storms.
When these types of systems move through the area they're usually
intense systems that cover tens of thousands of miles.
Illinois' location in the midwest and it's great north
to south extent, place it in the path of many of these storms.
When conditions are right, these blizzards can strike Illinois
hard, leaving snow and ice all over parts of the state.
During an Illinois winter we wake to snow crystals sparkling
in the sunlight.
We wake to evergreen branches bowing under the weight of the
heavy flakes that have fallen overnight,
sometimes much to our surprise.
Snow covers the ground hardening it, while it rests from growing
over the spring and summer.
But just as quick as an Illinois winter begins, cuddling by the
fire comes to an end, ear muffs and scarves are packed away for
the next year, blue jays fly free again
against the bright blue skies.
All of the snow begins to melt, there's a new life again.
It's all about wiping the slate clean and preparing for a new
beginning in the spring.
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