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Waiting for the storm

Illinois is no safe harbor from climate change

Illinois Issues

2002 [?]

Eighteen hundred words about Illinois weather written for Illinois Issues magazine in 2002 but which I do not recall writing and which does not appear in the magazine’s online archives for that year, if it was published at all. A mystery.


Illinois lies at the crossroads of continental climate zones. The state sees Canadian winters and Gulf of Mexico summers, and it lies in the zone of transition between the nation’s humid Eastern forests and its dryish Western plains.


The problem with living in a crossroads is that you are likely to get run over. Illinois’s weather has always been rough, and may get rougher. For decades, weather been a blight on Illinois that was accepted only because folks assumed they couldn’t do anything about it. Now, it turns out we have doing something about it, only it’s the wrong thing.

Climate change was still unfamiliar as a phenomenon in 2002, and at the time it had some use as an explainer, but visitors who’ve kept up with their reading in the past twenty years can safely skip it.


Were I more industrious I would check to see how many of the predictions made in 2002 have since been proven accurate. The ability to accurately predict the future is the ultimate test of a news source and it is always good to know who can be trusted to do it. Alas, I am not industrious.


Change that happens faster than people can adapt to it is a good working definition of "disaster." And the news has been full of ominous warnings about the more spectacular calamities that could result from changes in climate caused by global warming, such as the flooding of the world’s coastal cities. Illinois lies safely inland, but there is no safe harbor from climate changes.

Stated perhaps too simply, the combustion of such carbon-based fuels as oil and coal over the past century or so has burdened the earth’s atmosphere. Carbon dioxide and kindred gases act like an insulator, raising the planet’s temperature by trapping the sun’s energy near the surface—thus their collective name, "greenhouse gases." Experts disagree on the pace of the resulting global warming, even on whether or how much of the recent measured increases in surface temperatures are caused by human activity. Nonetheless, a consensus is emerging that the phenomenon is real.

Weather affects nearly everything about life in Illinois. Government and business leaders know that; what they don’t know with any precision is how local weather may be altered by global shifts. All that is certain is that Illinois will be affected, in ways that are at best unpredictable and at worst unwelcome.

As an art, climate forecasting is a little like making state government budget forecasts. Climate change scenarios vary in their assumptions and their methodologies, and thus in their outcomes. In studies funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, among others, some dozen computer models have been used since the mid-1990s by climatologists in government and university laboratories here and abroad to forecast Illinois’s climatic future. The models tend to agree on some things, such as the likelihood of  hotter and drier summers. (In the 1980s, Illinois went to Texas in the form of migrating industrial workers; by mid-century, Texas may come to Illinois in the form of Texas-style heat.) They disagree about nearly everything else.

The degree of uncertainty in climate forecasts is significant. Estimates of future Illinois corn yields reported in 1997 by the U.S. EPA, for example, ranged from hardly any change to declines of up to a third. Soybean yields under the same projections could drop by 24 percent (soybeans don’t like heat) or increase by 13 percent (they like extra rain and carbon dioxide). A more recent analysis that took into account more factors suggests soybean yields may nearly double. Overall, the models tend to agree that farmers probably will be better off in Illinois’s warm new world; things may warm up so much that some producers will be able to plant two annual crops—one of which is bound to make money.

The weather in a world altered by greenhouse gases won’t be simply like today’s, only warmer. The addition of energy, in the form of trapped solar radiation, to the global weather system is likely to make it less stable too. The  EPA’s 1997 analysis noted that Illinois weather, which already is notorious for its extremes, is likely to become more so. (Extreme, that is, not notorious.) The number of very hot days, for example, may increase. Hot summers already kill, on average, 190 people a year in Chicago, and
heat-death epidemics like those of 1995 and 1999 might become grimly common.
According to one federal EPA estimate, by 2050, heat-related deaths during a typical Chicago summer could increase 85 percent to nearly 360, although that number may not fully account for the increased use of air conditioning. Hotter summers almost certainly will have less immediately lethal consequences, too, such as more ozone in Chicago (twice as many dangerously high ozone days, according to one study) and in the Metro East area.


If the models are accurate, Illinois’s extremely wet days—those soil-shifting, river-gagging downpours that erupt in the spring and summer—are likely to get even wetter, especially in summer. More summer rain improves yields (good for farmers) and increases erosion, especially if it comes in the form of more and heavier thunderstorms (bad for farmers). More spring rain, or winter precipitation followed by warmer springs, means more floods (good for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers). Higher floods will test storm sewer systems in the cities, and flooding along major rivers will test a system of levees designed to withstand once-rare floods that already have become routine now that we have re-engineered the rivers’ floodplains as well as the climate.

Paradoxically, many climate models conclude that, in addition to higher average rainfall, hotter summers also may produce more frequent and/or more severe droughts. The rain, when it falls, likely will come in buckets, but when it’s not raining the heat will parch fields and lawns. Illinois field crops already are vulnerable to periodic droughts. More frequent or more intense dry spells could force some farmers to switch to new crops—not necessarily a bad thing, but certain to be a risk, and probably an expensive one.  

Nastier summers pose perhaps graver threats to Illinois’s really important crop: people. Marc Andreesen, the software whiz who helped invent the Mosaic Web interface that was the basis of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser left a cushy job at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign after he visited California—and he was only one of the thousands who have fled. One guide to graduate student life at the U of I bravely states, "Weather is stimulating; one can experience the entire range of the four seasons with a full view of the Midwestern sky." Those who have lived in Illinois know that one can indeed enjoy a full view of the sky when one is flat on one’s back, having fallen on ice or been blown off one’s feet.

 The state’s climate already is a factor in the generally poor marks Illinois towns receive as places to live. Illinois also is a more expensive place to live and do business in than other places because of the climate. Building owners, including homeowners, are punished by big bills for both heating and cooling, while in most parts of the country they would face only one or the other. They pay more in taxes, too, because the weather imposes huge costs on public bodies — requiring storm sewer systems on a massive scale, flood control levees, snow removal, and more frequent street and road maintenance.

The 2001 Great Lakes Regional Assessment is one of several studies sponsored by the U.S. EPA that asked government and university scientists to look at the local impacts of global warming. A recent report by the Great Lakes team examined how global warming might affect the lakes. Different models not unexpectedly gave different results. One of the two used in this study predicted a drop of 2 feet to 5 feet in average Lake Michigan levels over the next century, a finding confirmed by most computer simulations to date; the other predicted that average levels would stay the same or increase slightly.

These changes are not especially surprising, or especially severe. Lake levels have been fluctuating for centuries, as is confirmed by the ancient beaches that lie as far inland as Oak Park. The past century and a half may have been an atypically stable interlude, during which the swings have been modest and have lasted only a few years at a time. An extended drop in water levels, however, would hurt pleasure boating and make commercial shipping impossible. It also would increase political pressure to reduce Illinois’s withdrawals from the lake for drinking water and sewage disposal.

The effect of climate change on those parts of Illinois occupied by creatures that do not have congressional representation will be varied, too. Some critters may react to a changed clime the way settlers reacted to the offer of $1.25-an-acre government land. Southern crop pests that now are killed off each winter could begin to migrate into Illinois. The range of the Asian tiger mosquito, which carries tropical dengue fever, might spread from far southern Illinois if greater rainfall combines with hotter temperatures, according to a study published in 2001 by researchers at Illinois State University in Normal. The insect already has established itself in the East St. Louis and Peoria areas and has even been seen in Chicago. The over-wintering range of mosquito species that carry other diseases, including encephalitis, could shift north too, exposing Illinoisans across more of the state.

Not all the likely changes would be bad. Only the tow truck industry would begrudge Illinoisans warmer winters. As noted, yields of some crops might increase thanks to higher summer rainfall. Warmer summers should spur more of the state’s residents to complain about electric rates—not all of the whining one will hear on summer nights will come from mosquitoes—but also make long-overdue improvements in the energy-efficiency of their buildings. And any increase in winds could make wind power—finally—into a feasible generating alternative.

Illinois, as a populous industrial state, adds significantly to the global warming problem; carbon dioxide emissions from Illinois sources were estimated in 1998 to constitute about 0.9 percent of the global total. But cutbacks in greenhouse gases from Illinois sources would by itself have negligible effects on the global situation, at real costs to the state.
Indeed, critics note that the real risk to Illinois is not from changing climate but from ill-considered policies meant to keep the climate from changing, such as the premature retirement of coal-fired power plants, a move that would reduce electricity supplies and drive up prices.


If prevention is beyond the capacity of Illinois acting alone, can state and local governments do anything to help their constituents cope with calamity when it comes, as it now seems destined to do? The past is not encouraging. Illinois experienced especially harsh droughts in the 1930s and again in the 1950s, but memories are short, and each new drought seems to catch people by surprise. Water is still under-priced by most measures, and thus much of it continues to be wasted.


Illinois government has problems responding to crises in the present—child care, schools, taxes—much less one that hasn’t happened yet, and whose precise nature is not known. That might be just as well; no one knows for certain what kind of problem Illinois faces. For the moment, people must keep watching the sky, as if awaiting an approaching thunderstorm, ready to react if they must. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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