John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The Chicago skyline is gorgeous to look at, but in the winter it rains down icy fingers of death upon the populace.
It's everyone's worst winter fear: You're outside grabbing a coffee, when you happen to look up and... Bam! Icicle through the eye.
OK, so getting facially impaled by an ice spear is an extremely improbable event. Yet it looms large enough in the American psyche to appear in at least two Hollywood films. (Freeze, Col. Stuart!) Expand the target to the whole body, and there's Sly Stallone benchpressing a baddie through an icicle in Cliffhanger and Sandra Oh getting one in the kidney in Grey's Anatomy.
But outside of the blood-streaked script rooms of Hollywood, how likely is it that Mother Nature will shiv you with an ice blade?
Sadly, NOAA does not maintain statistics on icicle injuries. It's a common enough occurrence, though, that just last week a woman in Belgrade was killed by a direct hit from a nine-pound icicle. Russia seems to be ground zero for this peculiar form of mayhem, with as many as 150 injuries and five deaths reported in 2010 alone. That casualty list included a baby hospitalized after an icicle sliced through her pram.
And in America, to judge from recurring press reports, there seems to be one city in particular that gets more than its average share of frosty missiles of doom: Chicago.
To Chicagoans used to seeing their city's distinctive yellow warning signs sprout up all over downtown after a cold snap, this news probably comes as no surprise. The weather setup over the next few days seems likely to bring out a mass influx of these signs, meant to limit a building owner's liability when someone gets conked outside by falling ice. The forecast calls for snow and freezing rain until Wednesday, at which point the mercury begins to rise into the lower 40s. Icicles growing in the shadowy eves of skyscrapers will winnow and snap, falling in a silent death plunge for more than 1,000 feet until they achieve shattering impact with the sidewalk, car roof or moving human flesh below.
Here's the grim ticker of Chicago ice carnage from years past:
2011: Assisting a woman whose car window was smashed by falling ice, a paramedic is himself clocked in the kisser by an icicle plummeting from a skyscraper, possibly the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears building). A bystander reports that the man sustained a "severe gash to the head," although he later stabilizes in the hospital.
2010: A woman chatting outside the North Bridge Mall is felled by a speeding chunk of ice. Paramedics swath her head in bandages and pack her away to the hospital. Said a property manager at the mall: "We have our signs warning people but sometimes Mother Nature takes its course."
2008: Icicle gashes a pedestrian walking the Loop. Also, a large piece of ice plunging down from somewhere takes out the windshield of an SUV.
2006: Part of Michigan Avenue is closed to traffic after ice is seen falling from the Hancock Center. Closing streets is a common safety tactic by Chicago emergency officials trying to minimize injury from falling ice.
2000: Eight people go the hospital in one day getting on the wrong side of frozen, falling water. One man who cheated death/massive bruising was Sonny Skinner, who told the Associated Press after dodging a four-foot ice caber that he "cringed as shards of ice hit his legs, but then pulled his jacket over his head and ran."
1994: Donald Booth is waiting for a cab on Michigan Avenue when a hunk of ice the "size of a microwave" lands on his head, crushing his skull and spinal column. The 49-year-old man dies. His family later receives $4.5 million in a lawsuit against Neiman-Marcus, the tenant of the building from which the ice came.
And this unfortunate event occurred in Cassopolis, Michigan, about a two-hour drive east of Chicago:
1903: A police officer is killed when a “huge icicle which fell upon him… cut off the top of his head.”
What's the best defense against icicles? Walking in the street isn't necessarily smart, as falling ice can sail horizontally on wind drafts or be broken apart by building structures to become punishing cluster bombs. (And would you rather be hit by a car than an icicle?) The Chicago Tribune took up this question with an icicle expert; here's what he had to say:
"The big problem with the signs is that people may not be paying attention to the signs," Michael J. Smith, a professor in the University of Wisconsin at Madison's industrial and systems engineering department, told us this week. "They may see them but not read them as their minds are elsewhere.
"Second, people tend not to take actions that inconvenience them, such as see a sign, turning around and then going back to the previous corner to cross the street to get away from the falling ice. Rather they take the 'risk' of rushing by the danger zone and hoping not to get hit by falling ice.
"So the best solutions are to keep people away from danger zones using ways that block their path into the danger areas such as snow fences or barriers. ... Blocking access to ice fall areas is the most feasible of effective solutions, and relying simply on caution signs is a weak approach."