SAVANNA’s record of being the coldest spot in Illinois at 37º below zero in early January of 1999 got the cold shoulder from the National Weather Service in Chicago because the temperature hadn’t been registered on certified equipment nor was it registered by an official observer.
It’s like when a tornado isn’t official unless seen by an actual registered official!!!!
As it turned out, Congerville, a small town about twenty miles east of Peoria and a hundred miles south of Savanna got the nod that day for coldest spot with a reading of minus 36º.
Northwest Illinois had easily held the record for coldest spot for nearly seventy years, it having been -35º (below zero) on January 22, 1930 at Mt. Carroll. And the next year the same temperature, 35º below, at nearby Elizabeth, that on February 3, 1931.
They may have been dubious honors but an honor’s an honor, right?!
It may be appropriate that northern Illinois held the coldest record because after all, Illinois was created by sheets of ice; glaciers covering the terrain twice in 300,000 years, the first about 15,000 before. As glaciers melted (early global warming, you know!) small rivers and streams formed in the surface of the ice, their currents picking up sand, gravel and soil and carrying them to places where they seeped under the ice to deposit and in various places to make today’s hills and bluffs, valleys and mounds, etc. It was a slow process but Nature got it done. The places where today there are gravel pits was where the glaciers left behind sand and gravel through the holes in he ice covering, sometimes as much as a mile thick and where the soil made hills, called Kames, with linear deposits falling before you like so many soft green pillows are called eskers. Other common hills are called moraines. Some Illinois communities are sited on kames such as Lebanon or Vandalia while Bloomington and Champaign and the suburbs of Chicago are sited on moraines. Think of how many eons it took to build up the palisades, even the lesser bluffs along the Mississippi which itself became one major stream through the melt of the long ago ice. The workings of the ice left behind lake plains, prairies (some of the richest soils in the entire world are in Illinois due to the methods of the Ice Age so we reap the benefits of the activities of ice and its action.
All these centuries later, some uncounted, we here in northern Illinois have a little reminder of the Ice Age but few of us ever knew abut it until “modern times.” And as long as we’re thinking ICE as it forms on roads and windows it’s a surprise to learn that Carroll and JoDaviess counties in Northwest Illinois and Northeast Iowa have “spots” that have the frozen stuff ALL YEAR LONG.
Never melting, or but for short times, the pockets of it are the ICE AGE in miniature. The “Driftless Region” of Illinois have the rocky bluffs and hills that when in its centuries of building had large rocks, even boulders all fallen to the base of a bluff or palisade in a clustered jumble called a talus. Because they are not regular in their surfaces, cracks or fissures, empty spaces can fill with water in little pools that through the centuries has frozen and the rocks around them becomes colder. If you were to stand beside this jumble of rocks on a July day and put your hand on the rock it would be like laying your hand in a refrigerator. The tiny environment of arctic conditions perpetuates itself at the site. Those sites are called ALGIFIC SLOPES with their tumbled rocks against the foot of the bluff facing north or northwest to catch the cold winds of the north to keep the cycle of freezing in sync.
Twenty years ago John Schwegman writing in “Our National Heritage” stated that up until that time nine places of the ALGIFIC SLOPES had been discovered and of the nine only two of them seemed to have the ice that never melted. One of them formed a habitat of about one hundred feet by forty feet in size.
In 1985 Schwegman took the temperature at an ice pocket where it was found to be 42º on July 30 at 2:00 p.m. Out in the open it was 65º. Ten inches below the surface the temperature was 33º insinuating there would be ice below.
The jumble of rocks including those in the center of the pile some three feet in diameter, had been chilled during the winter and because of their not being exposed to sun or heat, kept cold throughout the year as the north winds added to the conditions. Snow melt, drainings from the bluff and ground moisture added to the “reservoir” of water.
The cold air surrounding the rocks affects the plants growing there, slowing their progress. Schwegman, who first discovered the ice pockets in 1981, saw Columbine which usually buds out and blossoms in spring, in bloom at the end of July; Canada violets in late September. For a botanist to find these three wild flowers so out of their schedule of bloom was an exciting experience. Nearby were Clematis, Boreal Rose and a Beaked Hazelnut caught his eye. They had never before been seen in Illinois!
Several of those species were plants of the North as is the Arctic Primrose that can be seen in early spring on the bluffs at Apple River Canyon State Park ... An arctic blossom in Illinois!
Some botanist claim that these pockets of flower and ice are not remnants of the Ice Age but are miniature environments that existed during that ancient time ... Small examples of what things were like, that is.
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At a much later time, January 1, 1861, John Porter wrote the following for the “History of Harmon Township,” Lee County, that in the 1890’s Porter had been in Amboy on his way home to Harmon, Northwest several miles to be exposed to the frightful cold and was to experience immediate frost bite, he claimed. It was an instant ice age for certain. In part, this is what Mr. Porter recalled:
“I attempted to water my horses but as soon as I came in range of the wind, the water was blown out of the pail all over me, together with the driving snow in a spray of hail. The horses got no water that day but did have liberal rations.
“In Amboy the day previous, it was fine and nice. The wind began to rise just at night and when we struck the prairie on our return it was blowing a gale. Bitter cold air full of driving snow blew directly into our teeth. Only for the persistence and intelligence of the team it would have been a toss-up if we were to have made that four miles on the prairie. The next morning was worse.
The wind almost took people off their feet when trying to stand or walk. The air was full of blinding snow. The temperature stood at 35º below zero, some said 40º below. Persons caught out were badly frozen. Cattle froze to death in their stalls. Chickens fell from their roosts, dead. Everything else was on the congealed order which made it a day well worth the name ever after of the “Cold New Year’s Eve.”
We believe we’ve been experiencing a Year of Odd Weather, when in reality curious phenomenon has gone before. Next week we’ll relate a couple of other “weather days” in Illinois and throughout the nation. Tune in.