A generation ago, we'd turn on the local TV news before bed, hear meteorologist Harry Volkman predict 5 inches of snow before morning, and take action by setting the alarm a little earlier so we'd have time to shovel before a longer commute to work.
Now, we hear about a killer storm making its way across the plains days before it is due to strike us. Storm coverage reminds me of "The Simpsons" episode when TV anchorman Kent Brockman tells viewers a storm has been upgraded from "Winter Wonderland" to a "Class 3 Killstorm."
In our breaks from round-the-clock weather coverage online and on TV, we rush out to stock up on canned goods, toilet paper, drinking water and shotgun shells (in case an unprepared storm-denier tries to steal our canned goods, toilet paper and drinking water). We use our cellphones to monitor the Doppler radar image of the storm bearing down on us. We make arrangements to cancel school and leave work four hours early before the storm can unleash its full fury. For this week's storm, that full fury meant somewhere between 4 and 10 inches of wet snow, depending on your suburb.
How terrifying is that?
"There are a bunch of days with snow 5 inches or more," says Charles Mott, a veteran meteorologist with the National Weather Service forecast office in Romeoville. We had a 5-inch snowstorm last year, and the year before that, and the year before that, and, well, we basically get a 5-inch snowstorm every year, says Mott, who searched through records so old they exist only on paper.
Since we began keeping records in 1886, we've also had 41 snowstorms of 10 inches or more. That's about one every three years, making 10-inch snowstorms about as common as new reality TV series starring a Kardashian.
This week's storm, which messed up some suburban commutes but actually made mine quicker because fewer cars were on the slushy road, was a killer storm. The storm was blamed for a traffic death in Kansas and another one in Oklahoma. We all should feel sad for the families of those victims. But I would guess that just as many people make fatal traffic mistakes after the bright sun in their eyes prevents them from seeing a turning semi-truck. But no one ever hears a warning that a killer sun is on its way and could arrive in the eastern sky as early as daybreak.
"Maybe we are getting more wimpy," allows Maurice Bluestein, a former Northbrook resident and retired college professor whose research published in the April 1998 Journal of Biomedical Engineering led to a complete revamping of the wind chill factor. He said the old windchill standard scared people by making it sound colder than it was. He was right.
Having grown up in an era without playground safety padding and such, Bluestein says he thinks today's society is "more conservative and protective." And we have space to fill. Just as 24/7 news stations sometimes give stories and opinions more attention than they are worth, storms might get that attention during 24/7 storm coverage, he adds.
But weather, which Bluestein says has been producing "more ferocious storms" because of global warming, often merits news coverage.
"Our country has the worst weather in the world," Bluestein says, explaining how mountain ranges in Europe and Asia separate the cold northern air from the warm southern air, resulting in less violent weather. "If we had a mountain range across Kansas, we'd be in much better shape."
While not always worthy of alarm, the expected fury of Chicago's winter weather is enough to change lives, including those of Bluestein's relatives living in Chicago.
"My grandson's birthday is in January. He's 9 years old and has never seen me at his birthday party," says Bluestein, 72, who now makes his home in Pompano Beach, Fla. Even in sunny, South Florida, Bluestein and his wife, Maris, keep an eye on weather reports.
"I was telling my daughter last night that we turned on the air-conditioning, which we don't often do in February," Maris Bluestein says of the recent temperatures in the 80s. Snow isn't a threat, but rain can wreak havoc.
"I usually go out after dinner and smoke a cigar and take a walk on the beach," Maurice Bluestein says. "If it's raining, I don't want to do that because the rain puts out cigars."
Hmmm. A weather event that makes people stop smoking sounds like a Class 3 Healthstorm to me.