Climate change study in Chicago

“Memory believes before knowing remembers,” William Faulkner wrote in his 1932 novel, Light in August.

For everything else we have apps like Google Photo. 

In late February, I received an alert from a photograph taken on the same date five or six years earlier of my son playing in the yard outside our high-rise apartment near Lake Michigan. 

The dominant feature of the photo was the amount of snow present, probably measuring about a foot.

That day seemed a lifetime ago compared with the February date of the Google “memory,” with a temperature that reached almost 70 degrees. 

That was not an outlier. 

This was the warmest February ever recorded in Chicago. According to data from the National Weather Service, the average daily temperature, 39.5 degrees, broke the previous high set in 1882.

Having spent virtually my entire life in Chicago and its suburbs, I have witnessed the extremes, from the blizzard of 1967 to the devastating heat wave of July 1995 where nearly 750 people died from heat-related causes during a five-day stretch.

Blame this warm winter on ENSO, or “El Niño-Southern Oscillation,” the artificial blast of warm air occasioned by changing atmospheric pressure and sea temperatures of the Pacific Ocean.

Dr. Allison Michaelis, an assistant professor in the department of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment at Northern Illinois University, said there is no scientific consensus on the link between El Niño and climate change.

According to Dr. Michaelis, drawing on data provided by the National Weather Service, Chicago experienced its fifth warmest meteorological winter for the average daily temperatures of December, January and February.

”There was about 19 inches of snowfall, which is about a foot below normal,” Dr. Michaelis said.

Chicago is not an isolated example or a fluke.

Rockford, the state’s fifth largest city by population, located 90 miles west of Chicago, also had its warmest winter ever.

“Unless we do some kind of experiment, it’s really hard to get the full answer,” she said.

”If we are looking at observations and potential signals of climate change, we are getting warmer Chicago winters more and more often. I think there’s a general consensus within the scientific community that warmer winter-time temperatures will be a prominent feature of climate change.”

The aftermath of El Niño is a relatively recent phenomenon traced to the last seven or eight years, said Dr. Michaelis.

The sample size and data is not sufficient to make an authoritative answer.

The specter of greenhouse gas emissions and the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere dates to the rise of the second Industrial Revolution at the turn of the 20th century.

“We might not get temperatures into the 70s every February, but I think we are going to continue to see extremes and volatility,” Dr. Michaelis said.

“Wetter periods are going to be wetter, and dryer periods are going to be dryer.”

What is inescapable is that the consequences of climate change are felt at every level. You don’t need a photograph to illuminate that reality.

“Folks are very resistant to change their own behavior for the better good,” Dr. Michaelis said. 

“I think you have to be optimistic in order to instill change in others.”