February 1-2, 2011 Blizzard Summary

Snowfall Totals
Peak Wind Gusts

Snowstorm Rockford IL courtesty Tony Sadewater Evanston, IL
  Rockford, IL.
Image courtesy Tony Sadewater

Evanston IL during the blizzzard
image courtesy Winston Olson


Blizzard Overview - Jim Allsopp

Northern Illinois and northwest Indiana were walloped by one of the most powerful winter storms in history on February 1 and 2, 2011. Snowfall totaled 20.2 inches officially at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, making it the third largest snowstorm on record. The total at Rockford was 14.3 inches, which is fourth on the all time list. The snowstorm was accompanied by fierce winds, gusting to 50 to 60 mph. The intense winds and heavy snow reduced visibility to near zero at times and produced widespread snow drifts of 2 to 5 feet, and a few drifts of 10 feet or more. The storm was powerful enough to generate vigorous updrafts, resulting in lightning, thunder, and small hail.



Lake effect snow began over parts of northeast Illinois during the morning of February 1. Meanwhile heavy snow from the storm was spreading into central Illinois from the south during the late morning. By evening rush hour, snow had overspread much of northern Illinois and northwest Indiana. Snow diminished over most areas during the late night and early morning hours of February 2, but a band of lake effect snow continued over the Chicago metro area into mid morning, and swung across northwest Indiana during the early to mid afternoon. Snowfall totals were generally 6 to 12 inches south of a line from Gibson City to Rensselaer, but one to two feet over most of northern Illinois and northwest Indiana. The blowing and drifting made snowfall measurement very challenging, even for the most experienced weather observers. In addition, the convective nature of the snow resulted in some variability of the snowfall intensity. Lake effect and lake enhancement generally made snowfall totals highest in Lake, McHenry, Cook, and DuPage Counties in Illinois, as well as Lake and Porter Counties in northwest Indiana.



map of snowfall over northern Illinois and northwest Indiana

Snowfall Totals

The following is a list of snowfall storm totals for this event. Observations are from the NWS Cooperative Observer network, Chicago and Rockford Area Snowfall Teams, and CoCoRaHS observers. 

Byron, IL
  Byron, IL
image courtesy Gene Sisson


Highland 23.9 Lake, IN
Beach Park 1.4 W 22.5 Lake, IL
Addison 5NNE 22.5 Cook
Elk Grove Village 22.0 Cook
Westchester 22.0 Cook
Inverness 1.7 S 21.3 Cook
Woodstock 5NW 21.1 McHenry
Downers Grove 21.1 DuPage
Spring Grove 21.0 Mchenry
Grayslake 21.0 Lake, IL
Midway 3SW 20.9 Cook
Schererville 2 WSW 20.4 Lake, IN
Waukegan 2.2N 20.2 Lake, IL
Willowbrook 20.1 DuPage
Mendota 20.1 LaSalle
Chicago O'Hare 20.0 Cook
Lincolnwood 1.8 E 20.0 Cook
Park Forest 20.0 Cook
Antioch 20.0 Lake, IL
St. Charles 20.0 Kane
Park Forest 20.0 Cook
De Motte 1.2 SSW 19.7 Jasper
Portage 0.9 ESE 19.5 Porter
Hoffman Estates 4.6 W 19.5 Cook
Lake Zurich 19.5 Lake, IL
Crown Point 2.0 WSW 19.0 Lake, IN
LaGrange Park 0.7 SSW 19.0 Cook
North Aurora 1.5 NE 19.0 Kane
Hebron 3.7 NE 18.9 Porter
Oak Brook 18.9 DuPage
Mundelein 18.7 Lake, IL
DeKalb 18.7 DeKalb
Naperville 18.7 DuPage
Elburn 18.5 Kane
Worth 18.1 Cook
Barrington 3SW 18.0 Cook
Joliet 2NW 18.0 Will
Watseka 5.3 W 17.5 Iroquois
Chicago Ridge 17.4 Cook
Lakes of the Four Seasons 17.3 Porter
Pontiac 17.0 Livingston
Oak Park 1.5S 17.0 Cook
Wauconda 17.0 Lake, IL
Chesterton 4E 17.0 Porter
Beecher 16.9 Will
Porter 0.6 S 16.7 Porter
Plainfield 4SW 16.5 Will
Bartlett 1.0 SSE 16.5 DuPage
Streamwood 16.5 Cook
Romeoville 16.4 Will
Hammond 3 SW 16.2 Lake, IN
Bull Valley 2.5 WNW 16.1 McHenry
Peotone 0.4 ENE 16.1 Will
Chatsworth 0.4 ESE 16.0 Livingston
Dwight 16.0 Livingston
Harvard 16.0 McHenry
Geneva 1.6 ENE 15.6 Kane
Lincolnshire 0.9 N 15.5 Lake, IL
Batavia 1.3WNW 15.4 Kane
Byron 3.2 N 15.0 Ogle
Lisle 1.3 SE 15.0 DuPage
Streator 3.7 ENE 15.0 LaSalle
Belivdere Water Trmnt Plant 14.8 Boone
Ottawa 1.6 N 14.6 LaSalle
Montgomery 0.8 SSE 14.5 Kendall
Poplar Grove 4.8 NNE 14.5 Boone
New Lenox 1.8 SE 14.4 Will
Rockford 14.3 Winnebago
Polo 14.1 Ogle
Aurora 3.6 SE 14.0 DuPage
Yorkville 2SE 14.0 Kendall
Loves Park 14.0 Winnebago
Richton Park 14.0 Cook
Palatine 1.3E 13.7 Cook
Valparaiso 1.8 NW 13.6 Porter
Sugar Grove 0.7 NE 13.5 Kane
LaSalle 13.1 LaSalle
Huntley 4.3 W 13.0 McHenry
Rochelle 13.0 Ogle
Bourbonnais 12.7 Kankakee
Joliet 2N 12.3 Will
Remington 11.9 Jasper
Batavia 11.7 Kane
Amboy 0.5 ESE 11.7 Lee
Valparaiso 5NNE 11.7 Porter
Peru 11.6 LaSalle
Coal City 4NNW 11.5 Grundy
Chesterton 1.4 ENE 11.5 Porter
Chicago Botanic Gardens 11.1 Cook
Watseka 0.9E 11.0 Iroquois
Fairbury 11.0 Livingston
Valparaiso 5.5 SSW 10.7 Porter
Yorkville 0.7 NE 10.5 Kendall
Paxton 10.5 Ford
Rensselaer 10.4 Jasper
Rensselaer 6.2 SE 9.0 Jasper
Wheatfield 2.8 S 8.7 Jasper
St. Anne 8.2 Kankakee
Kankakee 7.6 Kankakee
Milford 5NW 6.5 Iroquois

Wind Gusts

Winds gusted to 45 mph to over 60 mph during the evening of February 1. The strongest winds were along the Lake Michigan shore. Here is a list of peak wind gusts.



BURNS HARBOR        67


PONTIAC             61


AURORA              59

ROMEOVILLE          59


WEST CHICAGO        54

LASALLE/PERU        53

WAUKEGAN            53

CALUMET             53

JOLIET              52

DEKALB              52

ROCHELLE            49

KANKAKEE            49

WHEELING            49

ROCKFORD            48

LANSING             47


MIDEWIN             44

STERLING            43

VALPARAISO          43

MORRIS              43



Snowfall records for Chicago date back to 1886. O’Hare Airport is the official observing site for Chicago. The 20.2 inches that fell with this storm is the third largest snowfall in Chicago history. It was the biggest snowstorm ever in the month of February. Here is a list of the top ten snows in Chicago;


1.  23.0 inches Jan 26-27, 1967

2.  21.6 inches Jan 1-3, 1999

3.  20.2 inches Feb 1-2, 2011

4.  19.2 inches Mar 25-26, 1930

5.  18.8 inches Jan 13-14, 1979

6.  16.2 inches Mar 7-8, 1931

7.  15.0 inches Dec 17-20, 1929

8.  14.9 inches Jan 30, 1939

9.  14.9 inches Jan 6-7, 1918

10. 14.3 inches Mar 25-26, 1970


Snowfall records for Rockford go back to 1906. The Chicago-Rockford International Airport is the official observing site for Rockford. The 14.3 inches that fell at Rockford was the fourth largest snowstorm in history, and the biggest ever in the month of February. Here is a list of top 10 snowstorms for Rockford;


1.  16.3 inches on January 6-7, 1918

2.  16.0 inches on March 30–31, 1926

3.  15.0 inches on March 21–22, 1932

4.  14.3 inches on February 1-2, 2011

5.  13.8 inches on March 1–2, 1948

6.  12.9 inches on December 11–13, 1909

7.  12.5 inches on February 10–11, 1944

8.  12.3 inches on January 11–14, 1979

9.  12.0 inches on January 17–19, 1943

10. 11.5 inches on January 14–15, 1943



Meteorology - Stephen Rodriguez



This very complex and strong system which brought blizzard conditions across a large portion of the nation’s midsection on Tuesday, February 1, 2011, began to first show up in computer models by the middle part of last week.  Although at that time, model guidance was widely variable in terms of placement and timing of this system. It wasn’t until this past weekend when guidance began to converge on a solution - one which would bring heavy snow, strong winds, and crippling conditions to northern Illinois and northwest Indiana. This would be in contrast to what has been observed so far this winter.  Although the area has observed accumulating snowfall this winter, what had not been observed in some time is a storm moving in from the southwest - an orientation that is capable of ingesting copious amounts of moisture into the storm and provide widespread heavy amounts of snowfall.




Late Monday night into early Tuesday morning, an upper level system and associated surface low began to eject out of the southern Plains. As this occurred, several different types of winter precipitation begin to overspread portions of the mid Mississippi valley. Despite some lake effect showers which developed early in the day Tuesday, the main area of accumulating snow did not reach the northern portions of Illinois and Indiana until after noon. At this time, the area of low pressure had reached southern Missouri and southern Illinois while strengthening. A large area of moderate to heavy snow just north of the strong low pressure system overspread much of the area. It’s during this time when this system furthered intensified as an upper level trough began to take on more of a negative tilt with strong pressure falls and rises being observed at the surface. Several mesocale, or small scale, factors were occurring which helped bring more widespread intense snowfall to the area between the hours of 6PM Tuesday and 12AM Wednesday. With strong low pressure moving through east central Illinois, the deformation axis or snow band pivoted northwest over northern Illinois. This deformation axis provided snowfall rates of 1 to 2 inches per hour across the area for several hours before it began to shift out of the region. Mid and upper level forcing was greatest early in the evening as the upper level trough progressed northeast across the region. Then low and mid level forcing continued later in the evening as strong mid level frontogenitical forcing was observed for several hours.

Radar Image 1


By late Tuesday and early Wednesday morning, the system continued to quickly exit off of to the east. As this occurred, wrap around moisture shifted east across northern Illinois and northwest Indiana, helping to maintain a continuous light to moderate snowfall. It was also during this time that upper level flow began to shift such that this system snow transitioned more to lake effect snowfall.  This next radar image indicates this with a band of lake effect snow originating from northern Lake Michigan southwest into southern Wisconsin and northeast Illinois.  Also on this image are surface observations along Lake Michigan. There are two things to note with these observations. First, was the strong wind speeds, with gusts up to 50 MPH being observed. The second is with the orientation of these observations. Instability over the lake as well as a long fetch are essential for lake effect snow development. Another thing that helps more intense bands of snow to develop is surface convergence.  Notice that several areas along the western shores of Lake Michigan have wind barbs which come together over eastern Wisconsin and Illinois. This is an indication that strong surface convergence is occurring. This strong convergence aided with this last area of more intense snow to fall over northeast Illinois through the middle part of the day Wednesday, and then eventually into northwest Indiana late in the day on Wednesday as this all shifted to the east.

Radar Image 2



Although lightning is not something you think of when discussing winter weather, it was observed all across the region on Tuesday, and really increased in frequency late Tuesday Night.  The image below show lightning strikes given by the Lightning Detection System setup across the US.

Lightning Image 



So what caused the lightning across the region Tuesday night?  For the development of spring time thunderstorms, several components are needed: lift or forcing, moisture, and instability. These components can also be discussed with winter time lightning. With a strong upper level trough and mid level frontogenesis, forcing was definitely not lacking with this event. This system was also able to pull in a good amount of moisture as it evolved over the central part of the country, providing the second component. The only component left to discuss, which would continue to provide good vertical motion for charge separation, or for the potential for lightning, is instability. The image below is a cross section of the atmosphere at around 6pm Tuesday night for areas in Madison, Wisconsin south to Champaign, Illinois with Ohare airport centered on the screen. The purpose of this image is to best describe the instability present over northern Illinois and northwest Indiana. The solid streamlines are essentially the vertical motion provided by system scale forcing as well as mid level frontogenitical forcing. The image in the background is our instability for this event. The blue colors, right above the best vertical motion, are the areas of this best instability.  This instability helps any vertical motion rise faster and easier, which then helps with snowfall production and charge separation, or lightning. With summer time thunderstorms, what can happen when all of this is present is for hail to reach the ground. Now, of course, we are talking about the winter time so you would think that there would not be a need for a mention of hail.  But there were several observations across the area of hail that did fall along with the snow.

Instability Cross Section 




Not only did this strong area of low pressure bring very heavy snowfall across the region, but it also provided a setup for very strong winds which aided in the blinding blizzard conditions.  A strengthening and unstable upper level trough provided an attendant strong surface low to deepen as it tracked northeast across portions of the Midwest.  With this deepening low moving in from the south and a strong ridge of high pressure to the north, a strong pressure gradient setup across the Midwest late in the day on Tuesday.  These lines of pressure, or isobars, were tightly packed over much of the region, in particular northern Illinois and northwest Indiana.  These tightly packed isobars associated with this strong area of low pressure were one indication for the potential for very strong winds during this event.

Area of Low Pressure


There were several other aspects to this system which also helped with very high wind speeds across the area on Tuesday.  One of which had to do with the mid and upper level portions of this system.  This dynamic system brought with it very strong flow at all levels of the atmosphere, which included levels just off of the surface.  The image below is of a forecast sounding which depicts moisture and thermals profiles as well as winds for all levels of the atmosphere.  This image is of a forecast sounding for a point located near O’Hare Airport.  The first part of this image to focus on is on the right, where wind barbs give the wind speed and direction at different level of the atmosphere.  The wind barbs are indicating that winds of around 50 to 60 MPH are located only a couple of thousand feet off of the ground.   With a well mixed lower part of the atmosphere, as can be seen with the thermal and moisture profile, these wind speeds can easily be transferred down to the surface, which is exactly what occurred late Tuesday night.  Areas along the shore of Lake Michigan also saw stronger winds due to the fact that these winds were out of the northeast, which gave an unimpeded flow right off of the lake.


Forecast Sounding 


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