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El Niño may mean a mild winter for DeKalb County

DeKALB – Those who dread the freezing temperatures DeKalb winters often bring may be in luck this season.  

Meteorologists are predicting a mild winter for the Midwest because of warming sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, a cycle referred to as “El Niño.” DeKalb could see temperatures that average about 2 to 4 degrees warmer than normal, with fewer winter storms and snow. 

“Warming sea surface temperatures alter the jet stream pattern,” said David Changnon, Northern Illinois University meteorology professor. 

Jet stream patterns essentially determine weather trends, from rain and storms to warmer or cooler weather.

Even though El Niño occurs far from DeKalb, the pattern will affect the county’s weather and is expected to peak in December, Changnon said.

“It’s like playing cards,” Changnon said. “A strong El Niño will trump all the other cards. It will be the dominant [factor] that will dictate weather in the upper Midwest and United States.” 

There is a 99 percent chance that the average temperature from November to January will be between 20 and 37 degrees, which is pretty much on the mark with the overall average of 28 degrees in previous years, according to the National Weather Service.

But the predictions don’t necessarily mean that residents should leave their winter gear packed away. 

“We’ll still have snow and some weather outbreaks,” Changnon said. “But they won’t be as extreme and they won’t be as frequent.” 

A milder winter could benefit the local economy and help residents save some cash on their heating bills, he added. 

“Heating costs should be lower than usual,” he said. ‘If it’s warmer, people may be outside wanting to shop. There are better conditions for travel by car or by plane. … If there are fewer winter storms, cities could save money on salt and time on snow removal.” 

Snow removal is the biggest expense for DeKalb’s streets division, but the department won’t take into account weather predictions while preparing for the winter months, Mark Espy, assistant director of public works said. 

“We plan for average winters,” he said. “Mother Nature can change really quickly. We will plan for a normal winter. … If we have a light winter, that’s wonderful. But we won’t plan on any adjustments based on predictions.” 

Although extreme winters can impact street deterioration, a decrease in snowfall may not help, Espy said. 

“Less snowfall is one thing, but if you still have drastic cold followed by warm, that is what makes the potholes,” he said. “It’d be better if it froze and stayed frozen, as opposed to that constant freeze, thaw, freeze pattern.” 

Winter sports enthusiasts may even be a little more likely to come to the slopes if the weather is warmer, Tim Dimke, executive director of the Rockford Park District — which operates Alpine Hills Adventure Park, where people can snowboard, ski and tube. 

“More people might come out if it’s warmer,” he said. “We try to make Alpine Hills as weather-proof as possible. … I don’t think we’ve ever had to cancel for lack of snow.” 

Alpine Hills uses snow guns to prepare its hills for the season, Dimke said, so as long as it gets cold enough to put a base of snow down, the center should be good to go regardless of the natural elements. 

“If you start making that base in the first week of December, you’ll have a four to six foot snow base,” he said. “Even if you get warmer weeks in the forecast, you still will have snow on the ground.”

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