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Record Flood-Producing Rainstorms of 17–18 July 1996 in the Chicago Metropolitan Area. Part I: Synoptic and Mesoscale Features

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  • 1 Applied Climatology Office, Illinois State Water Survey, Champaign, Illinois
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Abstract

A unique rainstorm in northern Illinois produced 43 cm of precipitation in mid-July 1996, the highest 24-h precipitation amount ever recorded officially in the upper Midwest. Rains exceeding 20 cm fell over an area of 4400 km2, creating extremely damaging flash floods in portions of Chicago and its suburbs. Measurements from 496 rain gauges, including 80 recording gauges in the heavy rain area, made it possible to accurately define this storm.

The heavy rains were the result of two massive mesoscale convective systems, one in the afternoon and one at night. These systems formed to the north of a nearby stationary warm front. Several factors contributed to the excessive rainfall. Excessive moisture was present to the southwest of the warm front over Iowa and western Illinois; atmospheric moisture content was enhanced by surface evaporation from a very wet surface created by heavy rains the previous day, creating a conditionally unstable atmosphere. A cool air mass transported by easterly winds off Lake Michigan strengthened and slowed the movement of the warm front. A low-level jet oriented perpendicular to the warm front resulted in rising motion north of the warm front. These factors (instability, moisture availability, lifting mechanism) combined to form intense storms. This paper, the first of a three-part series, describes the storm in detail, including its morphology and causes, and the resulting rainfall distributions.

Corresponding author address: Stanley A. Changnon, Applied Climatology Office, Illinois State Water Survey, 2204 Griffith Dr., Champaign, IL 61820.

schangno@uiuc.edu

Abstract

A unique rainstorm in northern Illinois produced 43 cm of precipitation in mid-July 1996, the highest 24-h precipitation amount ever recorded officially in the upper Midwest. Rains exceeding 20 cm fell over an area of 4400 km2, creating extremely damaging flash floods in portions of Chicago and its suburbs. Measurements from 496 rain gauges, including 80 recording gauges in the heavy rain area, made it possible to accurately define this storm.

The heavy rains were the result of two massive mesoscale convective systems, one in the afternoon and one at night. These systems formed to the north of a nearby stationary warm front. Several factors contributed to the excessive rainfall. Excessive moisture was present to the southwest of the warm front over Iowa and western Illinois; atmospheric moisture content was enhanced by surface evaporation from a very wet surface created by heavy rains the previous day, creating a conditionally unstable atmosphere. A cool air mass transported by easterly winds off Lake Michigan strengthened and slowed the movement of the warm front. A low-level jet oriented perpendicular to the warm front resulted in rising motion north of the warm front. These factors (instability, moisture availability, lifting mechanism) combined to form intense storms. This paper, the first of a three-part series, describes the storm in detail, including its morphology and causes, and the resulting rainfall distributions.

Corresponding author address: Stanley A. Changnon, Applied Climatology Office, Illinois State Water Survey, 2204 Griffith Dr., Champaign, IL 61820.

schangno@uiuc.edu

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