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Extreme weather like this cold spell could be new normal for Chicago, expert says

Extreme weather such as bitter cold affects different parts of city in different ways
Extreme weather such as bitter cold affects different parts of city in different ways 02:39

CHICAGO (CBS) -- A national research team says extreme weather could be the new normal for Chicago.

Not only could extreme cold spells become more regular in winters to come, but the experts say they impact parts of the city differently.

Since the weekend, Chicago has been mired in subzero windchills, freezing temperatures, and steam from the lake and river.

It's cold in Chicago, and no one knows it better than the people at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont.

"We went from an abnormally warm December to an abnormally cold January," said atmospheric scientist Scott Collis as he sat in front of the Aurora supercomputer, which is the size of two NBA-sized basketball courts.

The supercomputer one day will be able to paint a clear picture of how weather impacts all of Chicago - and suggest how to best implement changes to handle extreme temperatures.

"So we can understand how climate is going to change in cities like Chicago in the future," said Collis.

With a changing climate, Collis said, extreme weather is here to stay - and will become a norm in the city.

"Now we're seeing more of these extreme cold conveyor belts coming down, and the simulations we run on supercomputers like Aurora are showing that that is what we can expect to see in Chicago's climate future," said Collis.

The work the scientists are doing in Chicago to create a better climate model of our city is made possible through a federally funded $25-million program called Community Research on Climate and Urban Science, or CROCUS.

The program is in its first year of five in Chicago and comprises a team of scientists and researchers from Argonne, community groups, and local colleges and universities.

Extreme weather patterns like the current cold snap are here to stay, expert says 02:06

"And we're taking advanced measurements so we can look at when there's a severe weather event – like an ice storm or a snowstorm or a cold outbreak - how that impacts individual communities differently," Collis said.

Argonne is building a network of 21 observing stations across Chicago. Collis said the current situation with the extreme cold – which has involved issues with public transit and schools and some offices having to close – is something that is likely to keep happening and that must be mitigated.

"It's something we have to plan for in winters to come," said Collis. "We need to build more resilient infrastructure to these kinds of climates – not just extreme heat, but extreme cold events like these."

The scientists' work is to target where Chicago needs to focus. He said underserved areas are typically the most affected.

"What we will be able to do is give city planners the information they need that is relevant to their neighborhoods," said Collis. "We know Chatham is going to see very different impacts to Hinsdale."

The scientists' work already demonstrates how some parts of the city are more vulnerable to this extreme cold – like, as Collis mentioned, the Chatham neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, which was hit with massive flooding in the past year.

"Chatham's going to get it on both ends – you know, they've both had the snowfall now and the deep freeze," said Collis. "But when that snow starts to melt – especially when we start getting February and March spring rains – that's when you start seeing the flooding that's going to be caused by this melting snow, and lack of infrastructure to move that water around."

The presence of green space – which is relatively scarce in underserved areas – is key to tempering the effects of extreme weather, explained Collis.

"Any time you've got a nice big green space, you've got an area you don't have to clear, where that snow can get trapped and stored," he said. "Also. the green space is very important for when that snow starts to melt."

And why would climate change – a warming process – cause more extreme cold? It's simpler than it might seem.

"As the planet warms and we see radically less sea ice in the Arctic, that distorts the polar vortex," Collis said.

CROCUS published this fact sheet on its efforts to understand climate risks in Chicago, develop plans for environmental equity, and address urban climate change.

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