Wednesday is Chicago’s 320th day without an inch of snow, surpassing the previous record set in the winter of 1939-1940. While the city’s residents may appreciate giving their snow shovels a rest, the lack of snowfall is an ominous sign for the climate. Their total snowfall for this winter reached just 1.3 inches on Sunday, after a slight dusting of the white stuff, whereas in a typical year, 12 inches should have fallen by this time. By comparison, cities much more to the south have had significant snowfalls: El Paso, Texas has received over 3 inches and Little Rock, Arkansas over 10 inches.
The temperature has remained relatively high in Chicago also, staying in the 40’s early this week and set to rise into the 50’s by the end of the week. While on the surface this may seem like good news, it’s just one sign of far-reaching, and potentially devastating, changes. The U.S. government announced on Tuesday that 2012 was the hottest year ever in the country’s lower 48 states, with almost 62% of the country caught in the grip a drought.
Visible evidence of this change is the dropping water levels in the Chicago area. Because Lake Michigan hasn’t frozen this winter, more of its water evaporated; the lake is currently two feet below its normal level. Two feet in a lake that looks vast as the ocean and borders four states!
If the lake drops too low, the Chicago River could reverse direction and flow into it, dumping sewage into its southern portion. The consequences ripple outward: the Chicago River, along with the Illinois River, is a tributary to the Mississippi. As the tributaries have brought less water to the larger flow, barge traffic on the Mississippi has been threatened. The possibility that it could come to a halt poses a huge problem for the commerce of the entire country.
Brant Miller, chief meteorologist for NBC Chicago, said of the lack of snow:
“This is a wake-up call of how we may have to adapt. It’s not going to be business as usual going forward.”
Weather-wise, ‘business as usual’ is rapidly becoming a thing of the past all over the world. For example, Australia’s current summer season has found its residents frying under extreme, 122 degree heat. And if most Americans have been slow to recognize the signs of change, the country’s farmers are well aware that they’re not dealing with ‘business as usual’, either. They’ve watched their crops shrivel and die, with the U.S. corn crop alone having shrunk by 13% this year.
So as the citizens of the Windy City stroll by Lake Michigan this week, perhaps reveling in their balmy 50-degree, snowless winter weather, they might want to notice how the water is slowly retreating from their famous lakeshore. The view from Chicago is one more alarm bell ringing for the rest of us, if we’d only listen.