A view of the Runge reservoir in the town of Runge, some thirty-seven miles north of Santiago on February 3, 2012. Reuters/Ivan Alvarado
The National Weather Service is kind of the anti–Mike Daisey, a just-the-facts operation that grinds on hour after hour, day after day. It’s collected billions of records (I’ve seen the vast vaults where early handwritten weather reports from observers across the country are stored in endless rows of ledgers and files) on countless rainstorms, blizzards and pleasant summer days. So the odds that you could shock the NWS are pretty slim.
Beginning in mid-March, however, its various offices began issuing bulletins that sounded slightly shaken. “There’s extremes in weather, but seeing something like this is impressive and unprecedented,” Chicago NWS meteorologist Richard Castro told the Daily Herald. “It’s extraordinarily rare for climate locations with 100+ year long periods of records to break records day after day after day,” the office added in an official statement.
It wasn’t just Chicago, of course. A huge swath of the nation simmered under bizarre heat. International Falls, Minnesota, the “icebox of the nation,” broke its old temperature records—by twenty-two degrees, which according to weather historians may be the largest margin ever for any station with a century’s worth of records. Winner, South Dakota, reached 94 degrees on the second-to-last day of winter. That’s in the Dakotas, two days before the close of winter. Jeff Masters, founder of WeatherUnderground, the web’s go-to site for meteorological information, watched an eerie early morning outside his Michigan home and wrote, “This is not the atmosphere I grew up with,” a fact confirmed later that day when the state recorded the earliest F-3 strength tornado in its history. Other weathermen were more… weathermanish. Veteran Minneapolis broadcaster Paul Douglas, after noting that Sunday’s low temperature in Rochester broke the previous record high, blogged “this is OFF THE SCALE WEIRD even for Minnesota.”
It’s hard to overstate how impossible this weather is—when you have nearly a century and a half of records, they should be hard to break, much less smash. But this is like Barry Bonds on steroids if his steroids were on steroids, an early season outbreak of heat completely without precedent in its scale and spread. I live in Vermont, where we should be starting to slowly thaw out—but as the heat moved steadily east, ski areas shut down and golf courses opened.
And truth be told, it felt pretty good. Most people caught in the torrid zones probably reacted pretty much like President Obama: “It gets you a little nervous about what is happening to global temperatures,” he told the audience assembled at a fundraiser at Tyler Perry’s Atlanta mansion (records were falling in Georgia too). “On the other hand I have really enjoyed the nice weather.”