Chicago Alley, Before and After the Storm

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Right: The wintry scene in the alley behind my sister’s house on the North Side of Chicago, a few days before this week’s storm. Below, the same scene after the blizzard. Those new snowbanks are going to be there for a while (thanks for the picture, Ann).Blizzard alley 2011.JPG

Our Blizzard

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Photo from the Chicago Tribune. The caption on the Trib site doesn’t give the location, but I’m pretty sure this is looking north up the southbound lanes of Lake Shore Drive near McCormick Place, which burned the morning the storm started. Note the railroad on the left–the Illinois Central.

A nice touch on the Chicago Tribune’s website: a 24-frame slideshow of the big snow of 1967. (See it here: Worst snowstorm in Chicago history). That was our generation’s blizzard, a snowfall so enormous that it defied imagination even as you watched it happen. The official total for January 26-27 was 23 inches. We got a couple feet where we lived, just outside Park Forest. The storm started on a Thursday morning; we went to school despite the heavy snow that was already falling and were hustled back home at midday as the district realized its buses might not be able to get all the kids back home as the snow piled up. As it was, some students were stranded in schools and some had to seek shelter along the road as buses were marooned. The domed roof of the high school gym, a local oddity or marvel depending on your point of view, collapsed. My dad was stuck at work in the city for two days and had to hoof it back home from the Illinois Central train station in Richton Park along three miles or so of unplowed roads. We were out of school for about 10 days, at first because the roads were impassable in our mostly rural school district (Crete-Monee District 201-U) and then because the heating plant at the high school failed. The experience was so total, so completely diverting, that the major news that swept the nation at the same time–the deaths of the first three Apollo astronauts in a launch-pad fire in Florida–made only a brief impression. And it kept snowing after the blizzard, too, and for a while the winter of ’66-’67 stood as the snowiest in the city’s history. The Park Forest Plaza, our local proto-mall, had piles of plowed up snow that didn’t melt completely until–well, I want to say May.

Other links:

Caught on film: How Chicago dealt with the big snow 44 years ago (WBEZ)

The Chicago Blizzard of 1967 (Chicago Tribune)

The Blizzard of ’67 (Unknown Chicago)

The Great 1967 Chicago Blizzard (WTTW, via YouTube)

The Great Chicago Blizzard of 1967, 44th Anniversary (Chuck’s Adventures)

Snow, and Snow

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I haven’t had to live through a Chicago-type winter in ages. So sights like the alley behind my sister Ann’s house on the North Side of Chicago have a certain appeal: The light on the snow, the tire tracks. Very atmospheric. Of course, I’ll be back in the warm zone in a few days. The atmosphere might be lost on those stay behind, judging by this comment from Ann: “By this point, every time I see it snow, I go, ‘Oh, Jesus.’ “

Of course, there’s snow, and then there’s snow. Below is a shot from my brother John, in Brooklyn, where they had their second foot-plus snowfall in a month yesterday. Atmospheric in a whole different way.

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The Forecast, Chicago Style

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 As mentioned many times in the past, we here at Infospigot Information Industries are fond of reading the Area Forecast Discussion (AFD) published online by National Weather Service offices around the country. The AFD gives a broad-brush explanation for the upcoming forecast; they discuss the latest trends in the output from the numerous weather models they follow and give the rationale for why they believe it will be windy and cold but dry tomorrow and the next day instead of warm and rainy. It would not seem to be the kind of writing that has a lot of character to it. Most of the time it isn't. Every once in a while, though, some personality leaks through. In this morning's discussion of upcoming weather from the Chicago office, a forecaster mentions that the weather models show that storms next week will be warmer than expected. Thus the region can expect rain instead of snow. But what about white Christmas? Here's the forecaster's summary (with some of the arcane AFD abbreviations spelled out and the all-caps style left intact): 

HEADING INTO EXTENDED RANGE…GUIDANCE HAS MADE A MAJOR SHIFT IN SCENARIO WITH MID WEEK WEATHER SYSTEM. GFS [GLOBAL FORECAST SYSTEM MODEL] NOW BRINGS DEEPENING LOW NORTHWARD ACROSS ILLINOIS WEDNESDAY NIGHT-THURSDAY SUGGESTING MAINLY A RAIN EVENT FOR MOST OF FORECAST AREA. 00Z [6 P.M. CST THURSDAY] EUROPEAN [MODEL] HAS COME IN FOLLOWING SUIT. THIS LOOKS LIKE A VERY SIMILAR SITUATION AS WHAT WE HAD THE FIRST WEEK OF THIS MONTH. THEREFORE…RATHER THAN RIDE COLDER SNOWY FORECAST INTO THE GROUND…HAVE BEGUN TO TREND AS WARM WITH THIS SYSTEM AS GRID TOLERANCE WILL ALLOW. HOPE NO ONE GOT THEIR KIDS SLEDS FOR CHRISTMAS UNLESS THEY CAN BE ADAPTED FOR USE IN MUD."

As I said, these folks can be a riot. (Picture above: the current GFS Model Forecast from Unisys Weather.)

Snow Again

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Here’s what that Friday morning snow in Mount Shasta looked like. Not sure when it started, but it was over by 10 a.m. By noon, it was turning into a nice day. I spent the afternoon on a ranch north and east of town, and it was dry and warm there.

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Drove up to Mount Shasta last night and didn’t get in until very late. I’m up here to do a radio story on a recent Nature Conservancy land purchase that aims to restore some valuable salmon spawning streams up here. But the news right now, as I look out my window onto Mount Shasta Boulevard, is that there’s a steady and from a lowlander’s perspective pretty heavy snow falling. I don’t think it will last long, but I didn’t really expect to see it. It’s beautiful, and I’m hoping that it won’t get in the way too much of my handling a tape recorder and microphone. Pictures later.

Delightful, Dismal

"MONDAY SHOULD BE A DELIGHTFULLY DISMAL EARLY APRIL DAY."

That's out of the area forecast discussion from the Chicago office of the National Weather Service, a line of clear "look what's happening outside" prose in the midst of talk about steep lapse rates, negatively tilted troughs, cyclonic flows, and tightening gradients. 

After a sufficient time away–decades, not years–you forget what April here can bring. The weather service provides a reminder of some snow records for this month, including a single snowfall of nearly 14 inches back in the 1930s. 

But outside the record books, I remember an Easter on which we got about a foot of snow (the preceding Christmas featured what I remember as a tropically warm heavy rain; well, rain anyway). The year I turned 16, the first baseball game of our high school season was postponed because we got nearly a foot of snow (when we played the game, a week or two later, the snow was gone and but sunny weather was accompanied by a brutal cold snap. We scored a single run on a sacrifice fly, our pitcher threw a no-hitter — it was too cold to want to make much contact — and we had the first win in a season whose other highlight was the desertion of about half the team to go watch Jefferson Airplane play for free in Grant Park). And then there was the day I turned 21, going to school down at Illinois State and working at the college paper, The Vidette. We had a blizzard of Spackle-like snow. I was lonely and typically disconsolate. Turning 21 wasn't a drinking holiday, since the drinking age was 19 at the time. The real source of my pain was another night spent at the dorms with no prospect of a date or even a friendly conversation with one of the thousands of females nearby. 

Oh, yeah, I got over it. But I haven't forgotten, now that I'm reminded.  "Delightfully dismal early April." 

[And Monday: More from the Tom Skilling and the Chicago Tribune's weather page on late season snow in Chicago: Snowless Aprils vs. Snowy Mays.] 

Snow: Profoundly Shocking

I’ve occasionally wondered what would happen out here on the roads if it snowed. Really snowed, I mean, with snow on the streets down by the bayside and not just up on a distant peak where it’s striking but not quite real. Travel? Impossible in an area with hilly terrain and drivers who generally have no experience driving in truly wintry conditions.

So Friday night/early Saturday morning, it was cold here. In the mid-30s, say. Not so cold you’d expect a snowstorm, but cold enough that the forecast brought the possibility of snow down to the 500-foot level. The road that runs near the top of the Berkeley Hills, Grizzly Peak Boulevard, tops out at about 1,700 feet, and sure enough, when our neighbors Piero and Jill drove up there, they saw a little snow-like material along the road. But nothing dramatic. No, the dramatic stuff was over on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge.

If you haven’t been there, the bridge on its north side is built at the foot of a mountain. The highway, U.S. 101, climbs up a grade to go through a tunnel blasted through the ridge. On the north side, the road descends very sharply — from just over 600 feet down to sea level in about a mile and three-quarters — close to a 7 percent grade. Last night, that’s where the snow happened, apparently very suddenly just before 2:30 in the morning. And here, as narrated by the Chronicle, is what occurred when traffic was added to the weather:

“San Francisco cabbie Mort Weinstein had picked up a fare at Fisherman’s Wharf and was headed to Marin City early Saturday when he emerged from the Waldo Tunnel on Highway 101 to find himself in a freak blizzard.

“Slushy snow coated a hillside illuminated by the taillights of panicked drivers careering out of control. Weinstein hit the brakes, but there was nothing he could do.

” ‘There were four to five cars already colliding with each other,’ Weinstein, 51, recalled. ‘My car wheels locked. I started to slide. The front of the car careened off the rear of another car. It was such a profoundly shocking event. Nothing like this has ever happened here.’ ”

Twenty-eight cars piled up. Two people were killed and a dozen injured. The road was closed for 11 hours while the wreckage was cleared.

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Snow in Eugene

Thom called this morning to report that he woke up to a snowy landscape outside his dorm in Eugene, Tingle Hall (one of the best dorm names ever). The proof:

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Eugene’s pretty far north; something like 44 or 45 degrees, so well above the latitude of Chicago. But it’s low, only about 400 to 500 feet above sea level. And like the rest of the climate west of the big western mountain ranges (up there the Cascades, down here the Sierra), the proximity to the Pacific is a dominant factor. So: Snow is unusual up there. Not an extraordinary rarity, as it is in the Bay Area (though it does snow up in the hills here, and the same storm that’s making winter up in Oregon is supposed to drop snow here at elevations above 1,000 feet today and tonight).

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On the Road Again

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Thom and I drove back to Eugene yesterday, stopped by his dorm, went to dinner (a hippie-style burger enterprise called McMenamin’s), and since it was still fairly early (8:30), I started back south. The weather forecast said a big storm would move in overnight, so I wanted to get over the higher passes along Interstate 5 — especially Siskiyou Mountain Summit, just north of the Oregon-California border — before I stopped. I made it down to Yreka, about 210 miles or so from Eugene and 300 miles from Berkeley, by midnight, then found a motel room. When I got my 8 a.m. wakeup call, I casually looked outside, expecting to see rain. No — snow. I checked online and saw that a winter storm warning was calling for 8 to 12 inches of snow along the route I was traveling. I packed in a hurry, had a cup of Best Western coffee, heard from the desk clerk that chains were required on the highway north but not south, and drove out of the parking lot  at 8:26. This was the scene at Yreka’s traffic light (well, maybe there is more than one).

It snowed pretty heavily off and on for the first 30 miles or so. Then gradually, the snow turned to rain as I descended toward the Sacramento Valley. Drove out from under the storm and got back home just after 1. It finally started raining here in the last hour or so.