Could a 1967-style blizzard happen again? Experts say yes, but we'll be better prepared

Experts say yes, but we'll be better prepared

Fifty-five years ago this week, local temperatures reached a record 65 degrees. Two days later, a far more memorable record was set: An unexpected blizzard dropped 23 inches of snow in 29 hours - the area's largest single-storm snowfall.

The blizzard of Jan. 26-27, 1967, stalled tens of thousands of vehicles and shuttered schools, businesses and airports. To this day, those who lived through it remember being trapped in cars with no cell phones to call for help and no way to get home.

The storm caught locals by surprise - something that would not happen today thanks to radar, satellites and computer modeling that did not exist decades ago, said Eric Priest, professor of meteorology and astronomy at the College of Lake County in Grayslake.

With climate change, could a snowfall as drastic as the '67 blizzard happen again?

Yes, experts say.

Historically, the area gets a major snowstorm every 10 years or so with the 1980s being an exception, said Priest, referring to major snowstorms in 1979, 1999 and 2011.

In 1967, getting the next day's forecast correct "was an amazing feat," said Priest, the former Air Force weather officer and United Airlines meteorologist.

Today, data on temperature, moisture, wind and pressure is fed into a computer that uses mathematical equations to create a model that meteorologists interpret, Priest said. Improved models mean more accurate forecasting.

Paul Bloom, an associate professor of physics at North Central College in Naperville, has studied climate science for about a decade. He says that while it's difficult to tie an event like the '67 blizzard to climate change, "there's evidence all around us that extreme weather events are becoming more probable."

Weather is chaotic, said Bloom, part of the team studying subatomic particles known as muons at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia. Climate - which refers to the behavior of atmospheric conditions over a long period of time - behaves more sensibly.

One consequence of global warming over time is more moisture in the atmosphere. That can result in extreme rain and snow events, making another blizzard like the one in 1967 possible, Bloom said.

"The entire scientific community has come to the same consensus," he said. "There's no question we have to adapt. ... You have to live in the world you've got, but make sure the world you've got is still livable."

Mark Potosnak, professor and chairman of DePaul University's department of environmental science and studies, said how people respond today can affect the future.

"We're going to be hit (by storms), but the severity and magnitude depends on what we do now," he said. "We have leverage. But every year we don't do something, that leverage slips away."

As for snowfall, Potosnak refers to a report from the Illinois State Climatologist that found no long-term snowfall trends, although some decades (1910s, 1960s and 1970s) were snowier than others.

Priest said another blizzard like the one in 1967 is likely. The question is when. Fortunately, technology allows forecasters to better predict massive storms, leading the National Weather Service to issue warnings giving people time to prepare and reduce the havoc such storms create.

"It's a matter of people heeding the warnings," he said.

In Arlington Heights, snow mounds from the cleanup of the Jan. 26-27, 1967, blizzard stood taller than automobiles. Daily Herald file photo
Cars blocked the Arlington Heights intersection of Kennicott Avenue and Oakton Street after the 1967 blizzard, but that didn't stop a resourceful resident from getting about. Daily Herald file photo
Drifting snow from the January 1967 blizzard buried a car in Elk Grove Village. Daily Herald file photo
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