Chicago and Midwest Weather: Condition Orange


My brief stay in Chicago has included a couple of Summer of 2012 heat spikes, interspersed with less radical summer weather, as a frontal boundary oscillates across this part of the Midwest. Today’s National Weather Service forecast map for the Chicago region is orange in every direction, indicating a heat advisory. Temperatures in the city are expected to hit 100. Outside the city, up to 105. (I note that the forecast high in San Francisco today is … 63.)

Tom Skilling, the dean of Chicagoland TV weather forecasters, and a meteorologist who is unfailingly informative first and entertaining second, sums up today’s torrid conditions on the WGN/Tribune Chicago Weather Center blog:

“The blisteringly hot air mass responsible for 100-degree or hotter temperatures across sections of 19 states Tuesday re-expands into the Chicago area Wednesday. It’s on track to bring Chicago its fifth triple-digit high temperature of 2012—the most official 100+degree readings here of any year since 1988.

“Temperatures surge past 90-degrees for a 34th time this year at O’Hare and 35th time at Midway—extraordinary when you consider the average since weather records began in 1871 has been only 17 such days at O’Hare and 23 at Midway!

“…This summer’s warmth has been nothing if not persistent. If you needed any additional evidence this weather pattern has been unusual, WGN weather producer Bill Snyder, in surveying the city’s official temperature records, finds Chicago is to log an unprecedented 29th consecutive day of above normal temperatures—making this the most back-to-back days to post a surplus in the 5.5 years since a Dec. 10, 2006 through Jan. 14, 2007 mild spell in which above normal temperatures were recorded over 36 consecutive days.”

Weathermen of Yesteryear

I grew up in Chicago, meaning I grew up on Chicago TV. In our house, the local news was a staple, and I’m inclined to believe it wasn’t bad though maybe it was also not as good as I sometimes tell myself it was. Anchor and reporter names I recall include Floyd Kalber, Frank Reynolds, Fahey Flynn, Bill Kurtis, Jane Pauley, Barbara Simpson, and Walter Jacobsen. Some of them went on to work with the national networks, for what that’s worth.

And then there were the weathermen. (Yes, they were all guys.) I think of them not because they were great, although I again lean toward the view they weren’t bad. I suppose there’s a book or at least a long essay on how we have come to see and think of the weather in the electronic meda age compared to earlier eras going back to the time when we guessed at the day’s conditions by looking to the horizon and sniffing the wind.

For better and worse, here are the weathermen who delivered the forecasts to my impressionable young mind:

P.J. Hoff, who cartooned the weather on the CBS affiliate, WBBM, Channel 2. He had a character named Mr. Yellencuss that I imagine he’d draw when bad weather was in the offing.

Harry Volkman, who worked on several Chicago channels and seemed to pride himself on (and was given credit for) the “professionalism” of his forecasting (he’s the first TV weather guy I recall displaying a seal from the American Meteorological Society during his broadcasts).

John Coleman, part of the first “happy-talk” Chicago news team on Channel 7, WBKB (later, WLS). In my book, his claim to fame, which was a pretty good one, was to forecast Chicago’s January 1967 blizzard (while he was doing weather on Milwaukee TV). According to his own account (in the comments to a post about Chicago’s Groundhog’s Eve Blizzard of 2011), Channel 7 hired him immediately after the storm, and I kind of remember him on Channel 7 by the time another storm hit two weeks or so after the first one). He went on to national TV and was a cofounder of The Weather Channel. And today, bless him, he’s a loud voice in contesting the case for climate change.

There were others, but they’ve faded from memory if in fact they ever made much of an impression. I ought to mention Tom Skilling as a great Chicago weather guy–the greatest, for my money–but he is very much of the present era.

Water: The Midwest View

[Other posts on water: 

Big Bathtub II: 'Wasted']

Spotted the following letter today on the Chicago Tribune's (Tom Skillings's) weather page: 

Dear Tom,
The level of Lake Michigan is up 13 inches from last year. That's great, but could you 
express that in gallons of water?
Dan Fridley
Dear Dan,
The quantity of water that circulates through the Lake Michigan hydrologic system is 
truly staggering. And expressing that volume in units as miniscule as gallons yields 
numbers that are so huge as to be practically incomprehensible, but here it goes. 
A 13-inch increase in the level of Lake Michigan's 22,300 square miles amounts to 
5.044 trillion gallons of additional water (5,044,000,000,000 gallons). And that's not 
all. Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are essentially one lake; their water levels rise and 
fall in tandem. Thirteen inches of water added to the level of Lake Michigan means 13 
inches added to the 23,000 square miles of Lake Huron as well, and that amounts to an additional 5.202 trillion gallons (5,202,000,000,000 gallons).

So to summarize the arithmetic: Lakes Michigan and Huron, total surface area 45,300 square miles, have risen a foot and an inch in the past year. The total increase in water volume is 10.2 trillion gallons.

There is no doubt that is a lot of water. But it is an abstraction, proof that in the wet eastern two-thirds of the United States, water is, most of the time, something that's just there, like leaves on the trees, mosquitoes, corrupt politicians and bad beer. In fact, this immense amount of water, these trillions of gallons, are a trivial amount in the Great Lakes context, where volumes can be calculated in hundreds or thousands of cubic miles.

But before we get to that, let's put those 13 inches of Michigan/Huron water to work: let's frame them in the California context. 

In California and anywhere in the West where water means the difference between nothing and abundance, the working unit is the acre foot: the water it takes to submerge an acre a foot deep. An acre foot is 325,851 gallons, and that is said to be enough water for two average American households to keep their toilets flushed and lawns green for a year. 

The extra 13 inches of Michigan/Huron water: It comes out to something like 31.3 million acre feet. California's total reservoir capacity is said to be about 42 million acre feet. So that foot and an inch here–the incidental effect of increased runoff in their basins–would fill California's collection of monster lakes and catch basins three-quarters full. What a gift to a dry place. 

Lake Michigan has an approximate volume of 1,180 cubic miles, and Lake Huron 849. A cubic mile of water is just under 3.4 million acre feet. So the 13 extra inches of water in Michigan/Huron added about 9 cubic miles to their volume, or a little less than 0.5 percent (that's not too shabby, actually). All California's reservoir capacity would be satisfied with roughly 13 cubic miles, about 0.75 percent of the volume of the two lakes (and while we're throwing Great Lakes volume numbers around, the combined volume of Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario is about 2,538 cubic miles; the volume of Lake Superior is 2,900 cubic miles). 

When you see numbers like this, which may be close to meaningless without more context, you think you can understand the envy and ambition of Westerners who think the Great Lakes would solve all their problems. It seems a little crazy, until you travel up and down California and see how much has been invested in large-scale plumbing to make water go places and do things that seem to defy nature and physics.  

Me & the Weather Guy

TomskillingAs avid readers of this space are aware, I’m an admirer of Chicago weatherperson Tom Skilling. His work on WGN has always seemed to be well ahead of the curve in terms of graphic presentation. His presentation is fact-rich and thorough (a new wrinkle in coverage of the winter storm hitting Illinois tonight: a discussion of pavement temperatures), yet understated. And his on-air material is supplemented by the best full page of weather I’ve seen in any newspaper, much of which is reproduced in the WGN Weather Center Blog. Typically, the blog includes an evening post written after WGN’s night news show; the posts usually carry Skilling’s name. The other night I was reading one, and was struck that the head of the station’s weather operation was actually taking the time to put out a last thoughtful and well-crafted message before shutting down for the night. I’ve been in other TV newsrooms, and I can tell you that that’s pretty unusual (and I admit I half-suspect someone else on the team drew the short straw for this duty).

(For comparison’s sake, this is what the San Francisco Chronicle passed off as weather knowledge on Thursday: a 50-word blurb from one of the KPIX weatherpersons on why you can see your breath when it’s cold out: “…When your breath leaves your warm body and comes in contact with cold air, it cools rapidly. As it cools, the invisible water vapor condenses into tiny water droplets, similar to to droplets in a cloud or fog.” That’s actually one of the more provocative treatises the page has delivered recently.)

I wrote Skilling a note telling him how much I like the stuff he and his group put out–yeah, drooling fan mail to a meteorologist. Surprise of surprises–though not as amazing as the time Kate wrote to Mr. Rogers and got back a beautiful two-page letter that bore all the signs of having actually come from Fred himself–Skilling wrote back to thank me. Must not get a lot of email from Berkeley. Made my day; or at least part of it.

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