It seems that weather rankings are in the eye of the beholder.
The National Weather Service has gauged this season’s chills, in part, by noting the number of days with subzero temperatures from the start of November through the end of March. By that measure, the allegedly just-ended season had the fourth-most days with the mercury below zero.
But add in days when the temperature sunk to exactly zero, and suddenly, this season is Chicago’s new No. 1.
“It looks like overall this winter has had the most zero or below,” said weather service meteorologist Richard Castro. “So it’s not just perception that it’s felt particularly brutal this year. The numbers say it.”
Monday morning’s low of minus-2 degrees puts Chicago in fourth place by the narrower measurement.
Reframing the numbers to get to a No. 1 requires the addition of three days when the city’s low temperature was right at zero, making for 26 total when it was that cold or colder. The previous record-holding season, 1884-85, had 25 subzero days and none right at zero.
Castro said temperatures likely will not reach zero or below again this season, as the nights are getting shorter and the Earth tilts toward the sun. However, this season’s overall severity could still worsen when considering cold along with snow, Castro said.
“The combination for the two is definitely the most severe winter since the ’70s,” Castro said.
Chicago’s 73.4 inches of snow so far this season, which the weather service counts as autumn through spring, stands at the fourth-most since 1884. That’s slightly less than during 1969-70, which saw 77 inches. The only two years above those were in 1977-78 at 82.3 inches, and in 1978-79 at 89.7 inches total.
However, the weather service predicts more snow will hit Chicago on Tuesday night and possibly over the weekend, Castro said. That could push the city’s snowfall total into second place, Castro said.
“We’re within 10 inches of second place,” Castro said, “So if we can get some snow out of these next couple of events ... you can’t rule it out. And it doesn’t really look like we’re going to break out into another much warmer pattern any time soon.”
As far as average temperatures go, Chicago is at its third-coldest season on record, at 18.8 degrees for “meteorological winter,” or December through February. But widen the time frame to include November and March, Castro said, and who knows how cold the season would be.
“November through March periods would be something to look at this year to compare to previous seasons,” Castro said. “We’ve never done that before. We’ve never had to. Meteorological seasons stood for themselves.”