Sunday, February 18, 2007

Another kind of winter

Auckland in late summer: The cicadas are singing (loudly!) and the sun is still hot. Warm, lazy afternoons are still possible. But autumn starts soon, so winter is only a few months away. By my Illinois-born standards, winter in Auckland is positively tropical.

The recent winter storms in
America provided a glimpse of what I left behind. That made me think that maybe friends and family in this part of the world might like to get a better idea of what a Chicago winter is really like. My sister who lives outside of the city and a friend who lives in the heart of it sent me their observations, which I’m sharing here.

First, from my sister:

Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Stop!!!

Even though you know that a storm is coming, no one is never really prepared. No one, that is, except school-aged children. I am sure that their minds, and maybe prayers, were focused on schools closing. In actuality, my guess is that teachers were hoping the same thing.

Sub-zero temperatures (minus 18C and below) felt even colder with strong winds blowing. Breathing the frigid air stung the nose and gave one a burning sensation in the lungs. Many of us breathed through a scarf that was wrapped securely around the neck.

Country road driving was treacherous as snow falling from the sky, coupled with snow from the ground being whisked up and blown about like powdered sugar, created hazardous conditions. Most drivers were cautious, but there's always the "clown" who thinks he has super powers and can maneuver his vehicle as though he were driving on dry pavement. And then he curses the storm when he spins out and lands in a ditch. Go figure! Journeys made by the sensible driver took anywhere from
to three hours for a customary 45 minute drive. Weather conditions were bad enough with all those clowns turning the trek into a three ring circus.

Driving in town was no better. The snowplow vehicles apparently could not keep up with the rapidly falling snow and blowing winds. Salt that had been sprinkled on streets prior to the storm offered little help. Stopping on even the slightest incline was dangerous as was turning corners. Anti-lock brakes were pumping away, but even they could not keep a car from sliding. More salt was spread. So much so that not only did the coated streets look white, so did every vehicle traveling on them. Imagine. Everywhere you look is a white vehicle!

In this weather, one must start the car and let it stay parked as it warms up. Fluids thicken in cold weather and need time to become the right consistency. Water from melting snow must be wiped from the windshield and the wipers because in no time at all the wipers can freeze to the windshield. After warming up the car and driving home, I went inside the house for five minutes. When I returned to the car, the wipers were frozen to the glass of the windshield. So before venturing out, it's imperative to free the wipers as they may be needed when you drive.

Cold temperatures do no favors to the homes, either. Every once in awhile a big popping sound can be heard. It is a board responding to the expansion/contraction process. Heating bills are outrageous. A simple 1500–2000 square foot (roughly 160 to 225 square metres) home saw gas bills from $300 to $400 (NZ$415–NZ$570)! Admittedly, it depends on the construction of the house—the amount of insulation, the heating system/vents, as well as drafts, opening and closing of doors. And flat roofs are no picnic, either. Snow falls and stays put, adding weight to the structure. It is a common sight to see a person on top of the house shoveling off the snow.

That's a brief picture of a Chicagoland winter storm. We may not like it, but we expect it.

And as for the schools…they stayed open and it was “business as usual”.


My friend Tim had a slightly different perspective:

The press reports have overdone [the] snowstorm. I think we got about 8 or 10 inches (20-25cm) during the day. It was a heavy, wet snow. [
Chicago’s Department of] Streets & Sanitation seems to have kept up with it—after all, we have a mayoral election in two weeks. I'm not necessarily a good judge on this. I've noticed since moving downtown that the city services are dramatically better when one lives in the Loop (area of downtown Chicago).

There was one odd thing about yesterday’s storm though: It came off the
Lake [Michigan]. The usual winter pattern is winds from the west, picking up moisture as they pass over the Lake, and then dropping tons of snow on NW Indiana and SW Michigan. Yesterday, the wind came from the east, and dropped the snow on Chicago.

Regardless, not that big of a deal, even though it was our first significant snowfall in quite some time.

The real story of this winter is that we are just coming off of an incredible two week period of ridiculously low temperatures, routinely below zero—not below freezing (32F, 0C) but actually below zero F (minus 17.7C).

I've been entertaining and playing tour guide for a penpal from
Bangkok who is currently in Chicago taking an advanced term at the University of Chicago. He thought Bangkok had “bad” winters, in the 60sF (mid- to upper-teens C). To say the least, he freaked when the windchill hit 40 below last week [“windchill” refers to what the temperature feels like on exposed skin, due to cold air temperatures and wind. In this case, both Fahrenheit and Celsius are -40]. He loves the snow, however. He'll get over it.


And there you have it: Winter in
Chicago. Snow happens, cold weather happens, but not always so severely nor so close to being simultaneous. Even so, these accounts show why I prefer Auckland’s winters, where it doesn’t snow and even frosts are rare.

Right now, though, I think I’ll just keep enjoying the summer.


RambleRedhead said...

I live in Indiana and I am a sales rep that covers the states of Indiana, Michigan and Northern IL and I have had my share of nasty winter driving.

If you are cozy in your home with someone to snuggle with that is one thing but driving in the middle of a blizzard or having your vehicle died on the side of the road in the middle of February (did happened) and have to sit in the freezing weather for over an hour waiting for the tow truck then you know how horrible it can be.

I was in the upper parts of Michigan and took some pictures of the snow - you can check them out at http://www.flickr.com/photos/rambleredhead/sets/72157600007093590/

Arthur Schenck said...

Thanks for the link to the photos, RR--they remind me of what I grew up with (and obviously don't miss). I experienced the same sorts of things you described, too. I tell ya: Winters in mild climates have a lot to recommend them!