CONGERVILLE – Last week, five weather professionals joined a conference call from their respective climate-controlled offices in Champaign, Kansas City, Mo., Asheville, N.C., and Davenport, Iowa. They were enlisted to be the final arbiters of a central question that had lingered over two Illinois communities like a stubborn blast of polar air for the better part of a month.
Not a lot of people were awaiting their answer. The decision mattered deeply to almost no one.
Congerville or Mount Carroll?
Reigning champ or former champ?
A farm on the banks of the Mackinaw River in Woodford County or a water and sewer plant next to Point Rock Park in the Carroll County seat in northwest portion of the state?
Minus-36 degrees or minus-38 degrees?
"We look at three things," said Ray Wolf, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in the Quad Cities who was in on the conference call that would decide a new state cold temperature record. "Was the (temperature) reading meteorologically plausible in the context of the weather of the day, was it taken at a government-endorsed weather station that is archived and was the observation taken on equipment that was working properly?"
The answers? Yes, yes and yes.
At 7:15 a.m. on Jan. 31, Bill Zink, the superintendent of the Mount Carroll water and sewer plant, performed his daily duty of recording the local temperatures for the NWS office in the Quad Cities. He opened the shuttered door of the stilted weather station that has been out back of the plant for generations and checked the alcohol thermometer for the overnight low temperature.
Minus 38, it read.
"I knew it was going to be cold that morning," said Zink said in a recent phone interview. "Obviously, I was not expecting it to be that cold."
The reading triggered a series of checks, counter-checks and counter-checks of the counter-checks. The next day, Wolf drove to Mount Carroll, met with Zink, examined the thermometer and determined it to be in working order. He then passed on the information to Brian Kerschner of the State Climate Office in Champaign, Mike Timlin of the Midwest Regional Climate Center, also in Champaign, Tim Kearns of the weather service Regional Cooperative in Kansas City and Deke Arndt of the National Center for Environmental Information in Asheville.
If those five individuals agreed, the Mount Carroll reading of minus 38 would become the coldest temperature ever recorded in Illinois. It would drop to second place a reading of minus 36 taken in Congerville, on Jan. 5, 1999, by Rick Dickinson. He's the Woodford County farmer and weather volunteer who still to this day takes the daily readings for the NWS office in Lincoln.
Now up for grabs, a state record would give Mount Carroll back the dubious distinction it held for 69 years as the coldest spot in Illinois — at minus 35 — before Dickinson recorded the minus 36 in Congerville over 20 years ago.
The conference call with the climatologists on Feb. 21 ended with a 5-0 vote to make the minus-38 degree reading in Mount Carroll on Jan. 31, 2019, the coldest recorded in the 120-year history of recording cold temperatures in Illinois. It is not "official" however, until the paperwork is buttoned up and the press release is sent out to news organizations. That could happen next week.
Is Dickinson disappointed that Congerville will no longer be listed as the site of the coldest temperature ever recorded in Illinois? Does he resent Mount Carroll's return to its frigid notoriety?
"Heavens no," he said. "They can have it."