It’s Wet. And The Lakes Are Full of Water.

WTTW Chicago tonight gave me a yell asking about the record lake levels. I have been watching the evolving large scale forcing behind the recent rains.

Irene and Vidya (SAVEUR Scientists) pouring over a map of Chicago identifying key areas to study in Chicago

It is nice as my work on the NSF funded SAVEUR project (Collaboration between Argonne, Northwestern and the University of IL) gives me a little freedom to do this given our focus on Chicago and the region.  In a nutshell: It’s complicated. This time of year we are not particularly strongly impacted by ENSO (Weak but persistent El-Nino) or NAO. But it has rained. A LOT. Chicago beat its all time may record with 8.25 inches (sorry about the old money) of rain.. This is over double its mean rainfall of 3.68 inches. Furthermore the rain has come from a series of torrential persistent (organized) downpours. This has allowed the soil column to becomes so wet it looses the ability to soak, store and evaporate the rain leading to increased run off.

Map of Great Lakes watersheds from Environment Canada

“But wait!” I hear the hydrologists amongst you exclaim, “Only a fraction of the Chicagoland region is in the Great Lakes watershed”. Well you are correct random hydrologist! The figure to the left (from Environment Canada) shows the watersheds of the great lakes. However, take a look at this site from NOAA which shows almost every area around the lakes has received much greater than average rainfall. Furthermore, it has been cold and damp and the lakes themselves have been cold thus inhibiting evaporation. The lake levels (or more so the rate of rise of the lake levels) is the solution to a simple budget equation: The rate of rise (or fall) is water in (Rainfall and diversions from some watersheds in) minus water out (flow into Atlantic via the St Lawrence River plus water lost from diversions away from the lakes plus evaporation). Each of the terms on both sides of this equation involve very complex physics and geopolitics. For example did you know that far less water is diverted away from the lake in Chicago (to the Mississippi) than is added to the lake on the Canadian side? But there is a hard limit to how much extra flow can be added at each point (to the great relief of those living in Montreal). So with well above average rainfall, very wet soils (see this calculation from NOAA with runoff around the lakes at the 95+ percentile) limited evaporation an already modestly full lake system is now breaking records.

Climate Differences

-11F in Utqiagvik

What a difference a few months makes. Back in January I was visiting Utqiagvik as a guest of Argonne’s Education and Outreach team. When we arrived it was -20F and lets just assume the dewpoint was -20F. img_3192Today I went for a run in Nanjing, China with a (5am) temperature of 70F and a dewpoint of 65F. In China each kg (roughly a cubic meter has 13.37 grams of water in the form of vapor. In Utqiagvik it was a mere 0.35g. From the dry to the dripping wet!

Behind The Scenes At WTTW

Isabelle (my Daughter, 14) looking down on the Chicago Tonight studio at WTTW.

Those that have been following will know that the coincidence between my trip to Utqiagvik (which I have been mangling the pronunciation of) this blog and the cold conditions in Chicago led to some media attention. I did a very enjoyable interview on WBEZ’s Morning Edition on Tuesday. A producer at WTTW’s Chicago Tonight listened to that story and invited me on that show. Now, I have actually done a fair bit of radio over the past few years so I was well prepared and not nervous. I have also done pre-recorded TV thanks to growing up in a family well accustomed to the camera (my Dad was a Journalist, now retired) and I had the abject honor to participate in the Alan Alder Science Communications course (and me the legend himself).

This mug is made for radio.. Lucky I had Yarrow Axford to balance out the picture.

I am not going to lie: I was nervous. I am struggling right now to find a comparison, perhaps at the beginning of the Sub 5 100 mile ride I did a few years ago (which ended up being a wonderful success). I also had some key messages I wanted to get out. I needed to let folks know I was traveling with the Argonne Education team but I had to tread a fine line as the research involves kids and I could not talk about to many details.. So lots of work building some pitch perfect sound bites and then committing them to memory! How? Well, Louise, my wife and wonderful sounding board, would ask me “Why were you in Utqiagvik?” allowing me to have 10+ goes at trying different intonations of the line. I chatted with a fellow atmospheric scientist on Facebook, Victor Gensini, who reassured me that you could not find a more friendly forum than Chicago Tonight for a first foray into live TV. He was right. The team there at WTTW studios were professional, friendly warm and welcoming. Isabelle and Louise came with me to the studio and we had the privilege of rubbing shoulders with state legislators, public advocates and leaders in the City we have adopted as our own: Chicago. I was to appear next to Northwestern Paleo Climate Scientist Yarrow Axford.

The team at WTTW do a great job of making us look good!

I felt bad I did not know of her work given my appointment at NAISE. And I should have, she has done brilliant work looking at the geological record for evidence of past climate. Yarrow an I went to makeup (yes.. Makeup!! Another first) and then a lighting and framing check.. Ok, now I was NERVOUS! After that we left the studio and waited to be called. About 5 minutes into the show we went into the waiting area just off camera while a spokesperson from the ALCU was talking about the Chicago PD consent decree. She finished her interview with Paris Schutz and the cut to Brandis Friedman and Amanda Vinicky. Yarrow and I headed out to the interview desk to be wired up for sound while Amanda and Brandis did their bits. I could see the countdown for the return to Paris sitting across from us (Paris could not have been more friendly or supportive!) and all I could think is “I hope I can speak once we start! Don’t choke!”. Fortunately, the format they use on Chicago Tonight is just perfect, you sit across from the host and make eye contact with them and answer clear questions. No looking into a camera and a real human to talk to. This allowed me to ease into a dialogue  and, due to the ease Yarrow and I found on meeting, a conversation between the three of us. It all went really well. Only real flub was I found out I had been mispronouncing Utqiagvik the whole time and the locals had just been too friendly to tell me. I would like to thank Meridith Bruozas of Argonne Education who masterminded the trip, Chris Kramer of Argonne Communications who made sure everything was done right with DOE and helped me prep, Jay, Nicole and Paris at WTTW who were just plain nice and the folks of Utqiagvik who were just inspiring. The interview can be found here. Ok.. Back to normal right?? I’ve got some serious coding to catch up on!