Steve Hilberg has a deep-seated addiction he can’t shake.
Ice. Snow. Sleet. Crackle. Crunch. Crystal precip.
Although most would agree that majestic snow scenes such as the historic round barns blanketed in snow are beautiful, that same snow can cause a lot of problems for those working to keep the campus open.
| Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
He’s not even fazed at the havoc it wreaks on those around him.
He only knows without it, winter would be a very cold place – and that’s about it.
“I like winter, but people don’t really want to hear that,” Hilberg said from his office in the southern hinterlands of the UI Research Park. “Everybody gives me grief because they can’t partake in the joy.”
Hilberg has gotten his fair share of joy from the winter of 2010-11.
According to a winter index Hilberg has developed, using records kept for Urbana since 1888, only two other winters have surpassed this one in terms of snow and cold. The two top-ranked winters were both in this century and close together, the first being 1977-78 and the second 1981-82.
So far this year the area has seen more than 39 inches of snowfall – the third highest in history – and the average temperature has been 5 degrees below normal.
“That does put us in contention,” he said. “We’re still in the running.”
But he said a spate of mid-40s temperatures predicted over the next few weeks could wrestle the possible “worst” crown away from this year’s winter.
“We’ve got time left, but meteorological winter ends in just two weeks,” he said. “As of yesterday (Feb. 10), we’ve had 58 total days with at least an inch of snow on the ground.” There was a period this winter when there was 27 consecutive days of snow on the ground.
Hilberg admits his index, based on the official winter period of Dec. 1 through Feb. 28, is not perfect and he continues to play with new ideas that might more accurately measure a winter’s punch. He said ice totals are particularly hard to measure and cause much more damage than a normal “one-half-inch precipitation” notation listed in the record. Wind is another element that’s hard to factor.
“All of these figures fall into how people perceive winter,” he said. “It’s something that’s very hard to quantify. It’s not published research or anything, it’s just something I enjoy keeping track of.”
Hilberg developed his interest in weather at an early age and by 10 years old had convinced his parents of his need of a backyard weather station. He immediately started keeping daily records.
“I was always interested in how it affected people’s moods and why it affected them,” he said.
He said he still remembers the record 23 inches of snowfall Jan 26-27, 1967, when he was living in Chicago.
“I was in winter heaven that day,” he said. “That was just an amazing storm and it still holds the record for snowfall in Chicago.”
He said, despite all the whining around him about cold temperatures and icy walks, this winter has had plenty of positives to make it bearable.
While snowfall has been consistent, outside of the big January storm, it hasn’t fallen a lot at once, he said. And, while temperatures have averaged lower than normal, there haven’t been wild swings for the most part. Likewise with wind chill and drifting.
“Even though it’s high in the historical ranks,” he said, “in terms of overall impact, it’s probably not been that bad. For the most part, the snow has fallen straight down and we haven’t had the extremes. It’s winter and it’s Central Illinois.”
Tell that to the people who have hugged snow shovels more often than their families this season.
“Some people do get irritated when I say something positive about winter,” he said. “I’ve had people tell me, maybe I should move to Minnesota. I’ve thought about it.”
He hasn’t made that leap yet, but the winter-weary of Urbana can revel in the knowledge that “Hilberg’s Snow” will be leaving us soon – and leaving Hilberg with that same empty feeling most of us have carried since December.
“That’s the part of winter I hate,” he said. “When everything turns to slush.”