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Editor's Notebook: Everybody talks about it, real weather geeks look it up

Peggy Boyer Long
WUIS/Illinois Issues

We knew it was hot. But forget the TV weather guy's comparisons to last summer's heat index, or even   the summer's before that. Try telling the neighbors we're living in one of the warmest periods of the past 100,000 years.

We've had good reason to think about the weather this year. But the scientists over at the Illinois State Water Survey in Champaign tend to think much longer term, and they've concluded it's warmer by 7 degrees to 8 degrees Fahrenheit than the last stage of the ice age that ended 11,000 years ago.

What they know, and the astounding amount of data they've helpfully crammed between the covers of their Climate Atlas of Illinois, will be important in the long run to other scientists, economists and government planners. 

And useful in the short run to the rest of us. That nugget about the Pleistocene Epoch, for instance, could be dropped casually into the mix next time someone asks, "How hot is it?"

In truth, we want — no, we need — to know. 

Though fewer Illinoisans farm for a living than in generations past, this state's economy is still very much calibrated to the climate. And though Doppler radar has outstripped reliance on the weather vane, the thermometer and the rain gauge, we are culturally conditioned to keep an eye on the horizon.

There's lots to see. What a shape shifter the Illinois climate is. It's changeable and extreme. The weather swings from season to season and year to year, more so from epoch to epoch. 

No wonder everybody talks about it. No wonder some of us keep track. 

Climate Atlas of Illinois by Stanley A. Changnon, James R. Angel, Kenneth E. Kunkel and Christopher M.B. Lehmann Illinois State Water Survey March 2004

  "No other state has such extensive data and information about its climate," survey Chief Derek Winstanley writes in his preface to the Atlas. That information, he notes, has been gathered over decades from the "archives of individual research projects, long-term environmental monitoring programs, regulatory databases, and scientific reports."

We know, the Atlas informs us, that the record high Illinois temperature was reported in the summer of 1954. That the record cold temperature was recorded in 1999. And that the greatest change in a 24-hour period occurred January 18-19, 1996, at Princeville in Peoria County. We can amaze friends by citing the historical record: The temperature in Princeville dropped a stunning 67 degrees, from 57 degrees Fahrenheit to minus 10 degrees.

The Atlas encompasses the last century or so, admittedly a small sliver of Illinois' past, but it includes droughts and floods, sleet and snow, thunder, lightning and tornadoes. One hundred years of nature's wrath.


Looking ahead is trickier. "Model projections of temperature change for Illinois by the end of the 21st Century vary from a warming of about 4°F to more than 10°F," the authors write. "For reference, the warmest year of the 20th Century (1921) was about 4°F above average."

Then they add this: "Most models project that the average year at the end of the 21st Century will be as warm or warmer than the warmest year experienced in the 20th Century." 

Just imagine the heat index. 

Pinpointing the causes of this change is trickier still. The authors — Stanley Changnon, James Angel, Kenneth Kunkel and Christopher Lehmann — do touch on the touchy politics of climate, but more along the lines of either/or. Some scientists, they write, cite global warming, thought to be the result of human activity. Others argue normal fluctuations.

But if the Atlas is cautious about the future, it leaves little unsaid about the past. We should have an answer next time someone asks, "How hot is it?" 



Illinois Issues won three first place awards and a second place award for magazine journalism at the annual conference of capitolbeat, the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors.

The awards, given last month in Seattle, recognize excellence in state government reporting.

Pat Guinane, the magazine's Statehouse bureau chief, won the top honor for in-depth magazine reporting for his investigation into the Blagojevich Administration's practice of contracting out government work. The main article in that investigation, "Public work, private gain," appeared in the February issue.

Guinane also won first place in the single report category for his article on the politics of guns. "Under lock and key" appeared in the September 2004 issue.

And he won second place for magazine column writing. We can't be too disappointed about that, though. First place in magazine column writing went to longtime Illinois Issues columnist Charles N. Wheeler III.

Charlie's hard to beat. He won the top award last year, too. 

The Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, now called capitolbeat, is an organization of journalists who cover Statehouses throughout the nation.

   •  •  • 


Mark your calendars. On Friday, September 30, Illinois Issues will host a luncheon at the Union League Club in Chicago to honor the magazine's 30th Anniversary.

For the past three decades, Illinois Issues has published in-depth reporting and thoughtful analysis on state government and politics. And we plan to use this opportunity to explore some of the policy challenges Illinois could face in the coming decades.

Former Gov. Jim Edgar, a member ofIllinois Issues' advisory board, will serve as moderator of a panel discussion on the state's future. 

The panelists will be Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, a Chicago Democrat; Illinois House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego; state Sen. James Clayborne Jr., a Belleville Democrat; and state Rep. Susana Mendoza, a Chicago Democrat.

This discussion should be informative and fun. Tickets are $60 for individuals and $450 for a table of eight. (See our back cover for additional details.) 

But plan to get your reservation in early. Simply return the card enclosed in this issue.

Peggy Boyer Long can be reached at Peggyboy@aol.com.

Illinois Issues, September 2005

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