Illinois State Water Survey - University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

State Climatologist Office for Illinois

Rainfall Trends in Northeast Illinois

The northeast Illinois region includes the counties of Boone, McHenry, Lake, DeKalb, Kane, DuPage, Cook, LaSalle, Kendall, Grundy, and Will. The dotted line in each of the graphs is a linear trend to give a sense of which direction precipitation has taken. A trend line does not necessarily have skill in predicting future patterns.

Northeast Illinois annual precipitation (Fig. 1) averages 37.1 inches (1981-2010 normal). But, the year-to-year variations can be quite large. Past annual values have ranged from 23.9 inches in 1956 to 46.9 inches in 2008. Around 1970, the region became noticeably wetter and this continued into the 1990s. Between 1995 and 2005 the region was somewhat drier, highlighted by the drought year of 2005. Precipitation since 2005 has been much above normal every year through 2011. Overall, precipitation has increased by about 5 inches over the period of record.

Winter precipitation (Fig. 2) has increased by about 1 inch over the period of record. The 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s were a period of somewhat lower winter precipitation. Of the four seasons, winter is typically the driest with much of its precipiation falling as snow rather than rain. Winter is defined here as the months of December, January, and February.

Spring precipitation (Fig. 3) was quite high in the late 1940s and early 1970s and very low in some years of the 1930s. Overall, precipitation has increased by just over an inch over the period of record. Spring is defined as the months of March, April, and May.

Summer precipitation (Fig. 4) has generally been higher since the late 1950s than prior to that time. Also, the year-to-year variations have been higher since about 1970. In fact, the wettest 4 summers and the driest summer have all occurred since 1970. Overall, precipitation has increased by just over two inches over the period of record. Summer is defined as the months of June, July, and August.

Fall precipitation (Fig. 5) is notable for the very large year-to-year variations, much larger than any other season. Fall is defined as the months of September, October, and November.

Trends at Selected Sites

Three better-quality climate stations in the Chicago area were selected for further examination of trends in annual precipitation. Chicago O’Hare airport is probably the best-known station with complete annual records going back to 1959 (Fig. 6). During the 1960s and 1970s, annual precipitation at that site increased considerably from about 31 inches in the 1960s to 38 inches in the wet 1980s. The next 20 years saw a slight decline in annual precipitation before returning to wetter conditions in the 2000s. The effects of the 2005 and 2012 droughts can be seen clearly.

Chicago Midway airport was established before O’Hare and has a climate record that extends back to 1928 (Fig. 7). While O’Hare is on the western edge of Chicago metropolitan area, Midway is in a more urban environment and closer to Lake Michigan. The 1930s and 1940s saw some of the driest years on record for Midway. Overall, there has bee a strong upward trend in precipitation with increases on the order of 10 inches from 1928 to 2012.

Aurora has one of the longest and most complete climate records in the greater Chicago area (Fig. 8). Generally, the first half of the 20th century was drier than today with a noticable shift towards wetter conditions occuring in the 1960s and 1970s, just like O’Hare. Annual precipitation has decreased slightly through 2012. Annual rainfall in Aurora has exceeded 45 inches on four occations (1972, 1987, 1990, and 1992) in the last 36 years since 1970 and only twice in the previous 70 years (1902 and 1954).

Taken together, these three sites suggest that the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s were relatively wet decades compared to the earlier record. There is some evidence to suggest that the late 1990s and the early 2000s have been slightly drier with a considerable drop in 2005. Wetter than normal conditions prevailed between 2006 and 2011 before drought struck again in 2012.

Summary

The fluctuations in summer and fall are largely responsible for the behavior of annual precipitation in which the climate became wetter after 1970 until the mid-1990s, after which there have been more frequent dry years between 1995 and 2005.Significantly wetter conditions prevailed between 2006 and 2011.

Causes of Fluctuations

The cause(s), whether of natural or human origins, of the observed increase in total precipitation since 1970 are not known with any degree of certainty. One change that has occurred during the time period of the observed increases is an increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and so this is one possible candidate. Indeed, increases in air temperature generally lead to increases in atmospheric water vapor content and global average annual temperatures have risen during the 20th Century. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report had indicated a high likelihood that much of the global temperature increase is a result of increased greenhouse gas concentrations.

In northeast Illinois, however, there is a "warming hole" and mean annual temperatures today are lower than in mid 20th century. Also, there have been documented increases in atmospheric water vapor content in the U.S., perhaps due to the increased atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. However, observed precipitation trends since the 19th century exhibit considerable regional and temporal variability that likely arise at least in part due to the natural variability of the climate system. High precipitation in the 19th century occurred when temperature in Illinois was considerably lower and, presumably, water vapor content also was lower than today. Thus, the observed relatively abundant precipitation in northeast Illinois since 1970 may have a natural component that cannot be attributed to a specific cause, or may be due entirely to natural factors. At this point, it is not possible to determine whether natural variability or global warming, or a combination of the two is the cause of the precipitation increases in northeast Illinois.

Figure 1. Northeast Illinois annual precipitation. 

Figure 1. Northeast Illinois annual precipitation.

Figure 2. Northeast Illinois winter precipitation. 

Figure 2. Northeast Illinois winter precipitation.

Figure 3. Northeast Illinois spring precipitation. 

Figure 3. Northeast Illinois spring precipitation.

Figure 4. Northeast Illinois summer precipitation. 

Figure 4. Northeast Illinois summer precipitation.

Figure 5. Northeast Illinois fall precipitation. 

Figure 5. Northeast Illinois fall precipitation.

Figure 6. Chicago O'Hare Airport annual precipitation. 

Figure 6. Chicago O'Hare Airport annual precipitation.

Figure 7. Chicago Midway Airport annual precipitation. 

Figure 7. Chicago Midway Airport annual precipitation.

Figure 8. Aurora annual precipitation. 

Figure 8. Aurora annual precipitation.

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