The Chicago suburbs are digging out from the largest snow event of the winter, just a few weeks after it looked like the area was on track for one of the driest seasons in history.
Only 3.5 inches of snow were recorded at O'Hare as of Jan. 31, and comparisons were being made to the winter of 1920-21, when only 9.8 inches fell.
Several late winter snowstorms over the past few weeks have changed all that.
With 6 inches of snow recorded at O'Hare Airport by just 4 p.m. Tuesday and the winter weather warning lasting until midnight, Tuesday's storm alone put the Chicago area above the average March snowfall of 5.6 inches. That snowfall, added to the O'Hare total of 19.6, brings this season about up to par with the average of 36 inches of snow.
Although March sometimes brings more springlike weather, it is still technically winter until the 20th of this month, and officials said a March snowstorm is not actually rare.
"The odds of having a big storm in December or February or March is all about the same, so this isn't that unusual," said Jim Angel, state climatologist.
However, it's been several years since a March storm blanketed the area.
On March 21-22, 2008, a storm brought 5.4 inches to the region. During a storm on March 1-3, 2002, the Chicago area recorded 9.9 inches of snow, and March 3-5, 2003, there was 6.6 inches.
Historically, the largest single-day snowfall for March came on March 25, 1930, when 13.6 inches of snow fell in Chicago.
While the storm isn't all that strange, it still created problems for travelers around the suburbs who may have gotten used to less snow this season. But most schools and some businesses in the area closed on Tuesday, alleviating many of the morning and afternoon commuting problems.
At O'Hare International Airport, more than 900 flights were canceled and another 240 flights were canceled at Midway, including a decision by Southwest Airlines to curtail all flights after 10 a.m. Service restarted in the evening.
Metra lines were also moving slow, as were the roadways, but there were not any severe accidents on the tollways Tuesday night.
With snow expected to taper off overnight, roads should be cleared by this morning's rush hour, officials said.
The snow was heavy enough to cause a roof to collapse at a banquet hall in Des Plaines. The roof of the Cafe La Cave in the 2700 block of Manheim Road succumbed to the weight of snow at about 1 p.m. Tuesday. No injuries were reported.
A month ago, public works officials were crossing their fingers and hoping the rest of the season stayed snowless, which would save their municipalities money in salt and overtime, but with winter weather there are no guarantees, Angel said.
"This has been a very unusual season. I spent much of November, December and January wondering where the snow was," Angel said. "It was very quiet, and then all of a sudden it started to snow the second half of February."
February ended up with 16.1 inches of snow recorded at O'Hare, more than four times what had been recorded in the previous three months combined, Angel said.
"We still have a little ways to go in the season, but this has certainly been a dramatic fourth quarter turnaround," he said.
Angel said there's no deep reason behind the change, just a more active weather pattern with more storms sweeping across the upper Midwest over the past few weeks.
Drawing on weather patterns over the past few years in an attempt to look ahead can be difficult, he said. Tuesday's storm isn't necessarily an indication that Chicago winters will be snowless for Christmas and last deeper into March in the future.
"We've been all over the place in terms of snowfall in the last few years. Last year we got most of our snow in January," Angel said, adding that in 2011 the bulk of the region's snow came in the memorable early February blizzard.
According to the National Weather Service the snow won't stick around for long. Temperatures are expected to hit the 40s by the weekend and get back to a typical March pattern soon.
Winter: Technically season lasts until March 20
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