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Storm forecast a reminder of late-season snow history

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 10:44 a.m. CDT

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(MCT) — Abundant sunshine and temperatures close to 50 degrees in the past few days teased sober Midwestern sensibilities.

Encouraged perhaps by spring training photos, some people deliberately ventured outside. Some even hopped on bicycles for spins. Maybe they dared to think that spring could break a little early this year.

But on Tuesday morning, for the second time in less than a week, a blustery mix of freezing rain, sleet and snow is forecast to hit the Chicago area. Accumulations could reach 6 inches.

Sure, weather predictions being what they are around here, many will shrug off the warnings and be brazenly optimistic. But it might be best to recall the adage that those who ignore history are sure to be victimized by it.

Chicago has plenty of late-season snow history and, regardless of what materializes, the prudent will keep their salt dry, snow shovels handy and snowblowers primed for the next couple of months.

National Weather Service records from 2011 show that 54 of the previous 139 years — nearly 40 percent — experienced at least one day with an inch or more of snowfall on or after March 25. A total of 17 of those years brought multiple days with more than an inch of snow to Chicago.

One year, 1926, included six days when more than an inch of snow fell after March 25.

And, like some cruel trick, the later in the season the snow falls, the heavier and deadlier it tends to be. On the other hand, it also generally melts faster.

Among the grimmest of those late snowfalls was the deadly storm of April 15-17, 1961, when a rainy low-pressure system stalled and kept looping over the Chicago region. It transformed cold rain into nearly 7 inches of snow. Six people died from the storm's effects; four were victims of snow-shoveling heart attacks.

That storm remains the latest major snowfall of 6 inches or more in the Chicago area.

More recently, the area was hit with nearly 2 inches of snow on March 27, 2008. On March 29, 2009, 1.2 inches accumulated. A week later, more than 2 inches of snow fell.

Tuesday's forecast, which calls for heavier snow north of Interstate 80 and winds whipping up to 35 mph, weighed on Jason Marker's mind while he stood at the Downers Grove Metra station Monday.

"I have a job interview tomorrow," said Marker, 30, of Downers Grove. "It's going to be tough getting there because I have to ride my bike."

Still, he said the winter has been a moderate one so far, "but maybe it will catch up with us tomorrow."

Ashley Feuillan and Bernard Thomas, also of Downers Grove, will be commuting in opposite directions Tuesday morning. Thomas commutes to a job in Aurora, which he starts at 7 a.m. Feuillan hops the train to Columbia College Chicago three times a week.

Both said they plan to leave earlier Tuesday.

"I actually like the snow," said Feuillan, 24, "but it can be a hassle when you're trying to get someplace."

Rather than focusing on what could be a nasty storm, Thomas, 40, kept an upbeat perspective.

"It hasn't been a bad winter," he said. "We haven't really had any big snowstorms."

If the forecast is accurate, Jake Weimer could receive a little relief.

Owner of ASAP Snow Removal in Chicago, Weimer keeps track of the number of snowstorms needed to make his winter business profitable.

"Fifteen snows a year is what it takes," said Weimer, who also operates a towing business and performs seal-coating work in warmer months. "If you get 15 snowfalls, you've made money. If you get seven or eight, that's break-even."

Tuesday's storm would be the fifth, Weimer said.

"If I break even this year, I'll be tickled pink," he added. "Last year we had two. But the year before when we had that big snow, I made a lot of money, mister."

So far, Chicago's Department of Streets and Sanitation has dumped 91,000 tons of salt on city roadways, department spokeswoman Anne Sheahan said Monday. This year's salt use probably will total about the same as the previous year's 100,000-ton level, she added.

"It's hard to say, because we do have a big storm system coming through, so we'll see," Sheahan said. She noted that the city used 260,000 tons of salt in the winter of 2010-11, when a major snowstorm struck.

Unused salt can be held over for future winters, and at nearly $60 per ton, snow-free winters or those with light snow can result in substantial savings, she noted.

"In terms of salt, we only replenish what we use," Sheahan said. "So the less we have to buy, the better off we'll be."

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