Warm winter: Is this the new normal for Chicago?

We are taking a deep dive into the impact of Chicago’s historically warm winter and getting you ready for the spring season ahead.

Let's kick it off with what's really behind this year's weather. How much of the warmth is due to climate change, and how big of a role has El Niño played?

It’s hard to believe meteorological winter is already coming to a close at the end of this month, because it doesn’t feel like we’ve had much of a winter at all.

December ranked fourth warmest on record with temperatures averaging eight to nine degrees above normal, and it wasn’t just December that was above average.

"January was certainly much colder than December, but officially finished 1.1 degrees above normal if you look at the average temperature for the month," said Ricky Castro.

Castro, a meteorologist with the Chicago National Weather Service, says the fact that January was still able to finish above normal after the extreme cold snap we had shows the mildness prior to the cold snap and after it.

That brings us to February, and we just had the warmest start to February on record. Chicago records date back to 1872. This winter will likely go in the books as one of the top ten warmest winters on record.

So that raises the question: is this just a warm weather pattern? Or can this be attributed to climate change?

Before we can answer that, it’s first important to know the difference between weather and climate. Here’s a simple way to think about it: climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.

"So, weather is the day to day, the conditions that we’re monitoring and forecasting," Castro said.

Climate refers to the weather of a specific region over a long period of time. Climate change refers to long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns.

We spoke to Illinois State Climatologist Trent Ford.

"Across the Midwest and in Illinois in particular, yeah, we’ve seen changes over last century or so that have fallen right in line with global warming or caused by global warming. Winter has borne the brunt of the warming," Ford said.

Ford says the Chicago area is about a degree and a half to 1.8 degrees warmer than we were at the turn of the 20th century.

Now, you may remember back in the fall that it was declared an El Niño year. Because of this, our region was projected to have a warmer than normal winter.

"It’s been on par with predictions. The outlooks for having an El Niño winter, which is what we’ve had – that tends, it doesn’t always – but it tends to be a bit warmer, a bit more mild, a bit drier," Ford said. "Persistently above normal as far as temperatures."

But is it safe to assume that our warm winter was solely because of El Niño? Or is this a sign of climate change and winters to come in our region?

"Probably not an either or. El Niño has played a really important role in our climate this winter, that’s for sure. And there’s no doubt there’s an El Niño signal in what we’ve seen this season. But as I mentioned, winters are warming at a faster rate than all other seasons and when we look at the confidence in historical trends, the last hundred years, the confidence in the model projections for the next hundred years, warmer winters is number one as far as just everything lining up. We’re seeing it. We know what’s causing it. So it would be hard pressed for me not to attribute a little bit of what we’ve seen this season to climate change as well," Ford said.

He added, "Was the warmest year on record by a long shot? Part of that, most of that, was global warming. Part of that was El Nino. And they can work together in that way. So I would say this winter is a good example of that as well, where El Niño and our long-term warming trend are working together to make what’s been a very mild winter."

It’s no secret that our planet is warming at a faster rate than ever before. As global climate changes, weather patterns are changing, too.

Impact on Crops

Agriculture is big business in Illinois. The state is one of the country's top corn and soy producers. Not to mention, it leads the way for producing the most pumpkins and horse radish.

So, warm winter weather isn't something farmers always look forward to as it may damage their crops. FOX 32’s Kaitlin Cody found out how our fields are faring and how it could impact spring planting.

Brian Duncan knows his way around a farm. He's been growing grains and raising livestock in Ogle County for 40 years.

This year’s warm winter isn't the first one he’s had to deal with.

"As far as effect on this coming growing season, it’s really too soon to tell," said Duncan.

While the spring planting season doesn't typically begin until April 15, there is one part of the process Duncan and other farmers are keeping an eye on.

"I’m hopeful it’s remained in place. As dry as it’s been, I don’t think it’s gone anywhere," Duncan said.

Duncan is talking about the layer of nitrogen many farmers use to fertilize their corn fields. They put it down in the fall to help with spring planting.

Depending on what type of winter weather we have will determine if that layer is still around come the spring.

"When it's warmer than normal, when the soil is warmer than normal during the winter, we have concern about that conversion of nitrogen to one that can be more easily lost," said Emerson Nafziger.

Nafziger is a Professor Emeritus in Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois. He knows how critical this layer is.

"(Nitro) is a very important (fertilizer), and one staying in the soil and not leaving the field and being available for the corn crop is a big issue both economically and environmentally," Nafziger said.

Nafziger says we don’t have cause for alarm, yet.

"But if it got really warm and stayed that way long before planting started, then we would be more concerned about it," Nafziger said.

Since corn has to have nitrogen to grow and Mother Nature can be unpredictable, many farmers, like Duncan, don’t fool around when it comes to protecting this expensive layer.

"When you put that nitrogen on, most farmers, good management practice is to put a stabilizer with it to hold the nitrogen in place until next year’s crop can take it up," Duncan said.

While the Illinois Farm Bureau President (Duncan) says that stabilizer should be able to stand up to most weather conditions, the warmer winter temperatures are still keeping him on his toes.

Not all of his cornfields were fertilized with nitrogen last fall. Some of them weren’t treated until a few months later.

Based on the weather, he’s thinking about fertilizing the rest of his cornfields with nitrogen in late February.

"That would be a month to six weeks ahead of when we normally plan to do it, but the old adage in farming is if you’ve got a window of opportunity, you better take it because you don’t know when Mother Nature is going to close it," Duncan said.

So, does early fertilization mean an early spring planting season?

"I don’t know. I don’t know," Duncan said while laughing. "That is a great question."

He added, "I don’t really want to think about planting corn until the 15th of April. But if it’s warm and fit and things are good, the 10th of April, will we plant? It will be hard not to."

Duncan says the trick is to find the sweet spot for when to begin planting. With the risk always being if you plant early, a spring cold snap may come long later and kill your crop.

"But the old adage is once one farmer goes, we’re all going to go. So you need to ask a neighbor. If he’s planting, I’ll probably be planting," Duncan said.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, Illinois produced just over 2.2 billion bushels – or $14.5 billion worth of corn in 2022.

Tornadoes in Winter

Typically, when you think severe weather and tornadoes, your mind jumps to the spring and summer months. But did you know that we need to be prepared all year round?

Mother Nature can throw severe storms our way any month of the year, even in the Midwest. February 8th was a good example of that.

"Wisconsin received its first tornado on record for the month of February. We actually do experience quite a bit of severe weather in December, January, and February across the United States, not as much so in the Midwest. Especially not in Illinois and places like Wisconsin," said Victor Gensini.

Gensini, a professor of meteorology at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, says this could be a sign of things to come.

Historically, tornadoes in January and February are more of a southern and central Illinois phenomenon.

As our winters warm due to climate change and other factors, like El Niño for instance, the frequency in which we see weather patterns that resemble a spring or summer setup in Northern Illinois could increase.

"If you look at the conditions that were there that day, they looked a lot like an early April or a late March day, and so maybe that’s setting a precedent for what we’ll see later this spring," Gensini said.

Here’s an eye-opening statistic: any tornado that is produced in February has a 40 percent higher chance of causing a fatality than the same tornado in April or May.

We spoke to Illinois State Climatologist Trent Ford on why that is.

"And part of that is because the daylight hours are so much shorter, in January and February. That if that tornado is formed, it’s more likely that it’s going to be formed in either low daylight or maybe nighttime. And nocturnal tornadoes are much more dangerous than daytime tornadoes because you can’t see them. People are at home, and they may not be paying attention. And there may not be protocols as there are in large places of work," Ford said.

If you look at historical tornado data, in any month of the year, it would appear that tornado frequency is increasing. While there may be some truth to that, there’s something we have to keep in mind when looking at the numbers.

"It looks like tornadoes are increasing a lot. But that’s just because we’re doing a better job of capturing when tornadoes are occurring and observing and counting them. And separating damage from this tornado versus this tornado," Ford said.

When asked about a link between tornado frequency and climate change, Ford says there is still a lot of research to be done.

"Assigning climate change impact to tornadoes is really challenging. And it comes with a lot of uncertainty. Now, the science is progressing rapidly on this. And some of the best work in the world, I’d say, is being done at Northern Illinois University. And also here at the University of Illinois in the Climate, Meteorology and Atmospheric Science Department. And working with climate models and with historical observations of tornadoes, you know to figure out how we expect tornadoes, or tornado producing systems to change in the future. How much they’ve changed in the past," Ford said.

By studying the past and how our weather patterns have evolved, it’ll help us understand the future and how climate change may play a role.

"One of the trends that has been more widely reported, and maybe has a bit more confidence in it, is sort of the expansion of the time when we expect to see more tornadoes. So, I never call it a tornado season because like I mentioned we see tornadoes all year round. And we need to be ready, even in Chicago, we need to be ready for tornadoes all year round. Just because the clock turns over and it's wintertime, doesn’t mean we can forget about severe weather," Ford said.

Cicadas This Year

Another thing that will make this spring a unique one is a once-in-every-221-year event. Two different types of periodical cicadas are set to emerge at the same time. FOX 32’s Mark Strehl takes a look at how they will impact plants, pets, and even your yard.

Homewood arborist and landscape supervisor Brian Doerr is on cicada watch.

"This is a historic event. And it’s something that tree people, like myself, we’re enjoying. The fact that we can be a part of it. We’re seeing an emergence of both the 17 and the 13-year cicada," said Doerr.

The range of the 17-year cicadas covers the northern part of the state and the 13-year cicada's range covers the southern part of Illinois, with some overlap of range in the Springfield area.

Doerr is tracking the temperature of the soil, which is a big indicator of when the cicadas will emerge.

"Very sensitive to soil temperatures. So, 64 degrees at about eight inches deep, you’ll start seeing them emerge. They emerge from the ground, the lawn areas. And they will go up into the trees," Doerr said.

His goal is to educate the public about what to expect and the impact the cicadas will have.

"They are not going to bite. They’re not going to chew on you. They’re safe for humans, they’re safe for pets. They’re nonpoisonous," Doerr said.

While the cicadas aren’t poisonous, they are prolific, according to Katie Dana with the Illinois Natural History Survey.

"So, the biomass is going to be incredible. So what that means is you’re going to see so many cicadas. There’s been estimates of up to 1.5 million cicadas in an acre. You know, sometimes it’s on the lower end, 50,000 cicadas per acre. But it’s a really large number of cicadas," Dana said.

She says that means some homeowners could see an impact on their property, especially as the cicadas reach the end of their life cycles.

"Yes, you might have to clean out your gutters. You might have to make sure that, you know, the sewer drains are uncovered," Dana said.

Doerr added, "If you have highly valued small trees on your property, you can net them and cover them to prevent the insects from egg laying into your tree, causing any minor damage if that’s a concern."

"Netting is a great way to keep them away. There’s nothing you can do to keep them from coming out of the ground. If they’re there, they’re coming out," Dana said.

Doerr added, "You might have a lot of holes in your lawn. Think of it as if the aerator went by. It’s not going to be that much time before the rains and the soil just naturally close those holes up. And it won’t be a permanent thing."

Cicadas lay their eggs in the branches of trees, which can cause damage to some of the smaller ones.

"Young trees, they can kill young trees. But the older trees are a little bit more resilient," Dana said.

And of course, with the cicadas emerging, expect it to be loud and a smell as they decompose.

"It does get stinky too, so just to warn people. It’s mostly just because they’re rotting. They’re rotting on the ground," Dana said. "So there are three different species that you’ll see in the Chicago area. Each of them has a unique song. The Pharoah cicada is called the Pharoah cicada because it sounds like Pharoah. So it sounds like Pharoah, Pharoah. Whereas Cassin’s is more like a buzz and click sound."

The cicadas do have some positives, like serving as a food source for animals and birds.

"They’re part of the life cycle if you will. Birds are going to feed on them. Animals are going to feed on them," Doerr said.

Dana added, "So they’re feeding anything from small mammals to snakes. To fish to your pet dog. To other insects or spiders, right?"

They can also provide a source of fertilizer as they break down after death.

"And break down with bacteria, which is actually great for the soil. So, it introduces a lot more nutrients back into the soil. You see a lot more plant growth in following years after a cicada emergence," Dana said.

Dana says the rarity of this year’s emergence even has people traveling from out of state to check it out.

"I think people are just so excited. I mean, people call this a natural wonder of the world," Dana said.

If you’re looking to go cicada spotting, your best bet in the Chicago area could be your local green space with mature trees.

"If you go to a city park, all the grass is mowed. And they’re just going to go straight for those trees. So that’s a really dense place that you can find them," Dana said.

The periodical cicadas are projected to emerge in mid-May but could come out sooner if our warm winter trend continues.

Impact on Animal Migration

When the temperature begins to drop, many birds begin migrating out of the Chicago area to look for warmer weather.

But what happens when winter is warm? Do they stay or do they go? FOX 32’s Tim McGill found out.

Whether you know it or not, Illinois is a hub for migrating birds. Millions of them pass through the Prairie State every year thanks to Old Man River.

"It’s a major, major avenue for birds. Literally hundreds of millions of birds will fly along the Mississippi River every spring and fall migration," said Andrew Dreelin.

Dreelin is a doctoral student in bird studies at Northern Illinois University.

"The way birds respond to migration, to weather really depends on the kind of bird it is," Dreelin said.

Dreelin says there are two types of migratory birds.

"We can think of birds as obligatory migrants. Ones that are always going to migrate to and from their breeding and wintering grounds, and then we can also think of birds that are making decisions about whether or not to migrate based on more local conditions," Dreelin said, like the food supply or the weather.

Dreelin says these birds, if they do migrate, usually don’t go very far and are the ones most affected by warm winter temperatures.

"Red-winged blackbirds, brown-headed cowbirds, and other migratory songbirds that are typically the first to come back in spring are arriving earlier," Dreelin said.

Dreelin adds our warm winter may also be setting off cues for waterfowl, like geese and ducks, to migrate back earlier this year.

"Generally speaking, we haven’t seen this winter as a transformation of the migratory patterns. We see, right now, birds starting to trickle back earlier than usual," said Dr. Benjamin Van Doren.

Van Doren is an assistant professor in animal migration biology at the University of Illinois.

While some birds have already started their spring migration, others won’t begin until mid-May.

Either way, Van Doren says it’s crucial for birds to match the timing of their migration with weather conditions.

"If the birds come back too early, there’s a risk of them hitting a cold snap or a snowstorm or something quite dangerous," Van Doren said.

That could reduce the amount of available resources birds need for feeding and breeding.

"Ultimately, this kind of climate weirding that we’re seeing does create problems for bird populations and has a negative impact on birds as a whole," Dreelin said.

Dreelin says we are seeing steep declines in most migratory bird populations in North America for a number of reasons, and climate change is one of them.

"There’s definitely a lot that we stand to lose with declining migratory birds. Migratory birds provide vital ecosystem services, like dispersing fruits and seeds, controlling insects and other pest species," Dreelin said.

Dreelin says those tasks help provide clean water, food and other resources needed to conserve the Earth.

But that’s not all migratory birds do.

"Migratory birds can tell us about not only how our ecosystems are doing here in Illinois, but also how the northern forest and the southern jungles are all faring," Van Doren said.

One last fun fact about bird migration: you won’t see much of it during the day. Van Doren says birds typically migrate overnight while we are sleeping.

Spring Gardening Tips

Our warm winter this year has had many impacts. But what about when it comes to our gardens? Let’s get some expert advice to help you coordinate your planting and make sure your plants thrive. FOX 32’s Mike Caplan has what you need to know.

Gardeners around the Chicago area are getting ready to plant. But the temperature increase this past season could be a factor in the future of your yard.

"One thing that we do get concerned about, sometimes when we see these really mild winters, is early dormancy break for our perennial plants," said Trent Ford.

Ford, an Illinois State Climatologist, says that one concern is the plants may get ahead of pollinators like bees as they react to those warmer temperatures.

"We can have pollinator plant mismatches. The plants quote on quote wake up early. Flowering a bit earlier in response to that milder winter," Ford said.

Ford says that while the mismatch may not be a major issue in just one year, if it's something that continues long-term, there could be further consequences.

"What that does is it starts to affect the suitability range for different types of plants and animals. And that’s one of the bigger impacts that a warmer winter has had. And likely will continue to have in Illinois," Ford said.

So what can you do to protect your plants and adjust your gardening plans for this year? Heather Sherwood with the Chicago Botanic Garden has a few tips, starting with where to plant them.

"So, anything closer to brickwork. Or sometimes even like manhole or drainage covers can act like a little microclimate. And then having really nice southern exposure is kind of ideal to keep the soil just a little bit warmer," Sherwood said.

Sherwood also recommends that gardeners make sure they choose spots for their plants where water doesn’t back up.

"So if you have good drainage, you have a better likelihood of zonal, questionable plants making it through the winter," Sherwood said.

So, what else can you do to get your garden ready? Cutting back, cleaning up, and mulching are a good place to start.

"If you put something in late in the season, we have a lot of heaving going on, which is the ground freezing overnight and then everything is popping up out of the ground with a frost in the morning. So, putting a nice layer of mulch actually helps prevent that a great deal," Sherwood said.

At the end of the day, Sherwood says that many plants like tulips have built-in mechanisms to protect them against the cold.

"They have that anti-freeze protein in them. That allows them to grow even though everything else is frozen outside. And, it is again, for our earliest pollinators so vital that we have things like this as season extenders, so everybody gets a little bit of choice nectar," Sherwood said.

Fear not, if the weather does turn colder late in the season, you can still preserve your plants by being prepared. Take steps now so that when spring arrives, everything comes in nice and green.

Thanks so much for joining us for a look at the impact of our warm winter. Remember, you can always get the latest weather news and information on FOX32Chicago.com and on FOX Local.