Snow, ice, thunder, lightning all part of March (and April and sometimes May) madness
This time of the year the atmosphere tends to gain energy as the seasons change. That's where things can get a little weird in Wisconsin.
It may say "first day of spring" on the calendar as of 11:15 a.m. Central time Tuesday, but history shows that is often a tease to winter-weary Wisconsinites.
Madness in March, it turns out, includes the weather and it often extends into April and sometimes May.
"It can be a rather unpredictable and surprising time of year," said Steve Davis, a National Weather Service meteorologist based at the Sullivan office.
This time of the year, the atmosphere tends to gain energy as the seasons change. That's where things can get a little weird.
"Any time we’re transitioning and summer is trying to replace winter, crazy stuff can happen," Davis said.
This time of year, we might see storms with thunder, lightning and ... snow. Lots of snow.
We can get lightning and thunder anytime it snows, Davis said.
But history shows quite a few big spring snowstorms in Wisconsin have featured what's known as "thunder snow."
So far, the winter has been pretty much blizzard-free in this part of the upper Midwest. But on any given day this time of year, the sky can drop heavy, wet snow on Wisconsin.
As if right on cue, "There is the potential for accumulating snowfall across southern Wisconsin late Friday into Saturday," the weather service says in an outlook issued Monday.
Right now, weather service meteorologists say they have "low" confidence in that forecast, with computer models showing the snow going north, snow with a bull's-eye on southern Wisconsin or snow going south of the area.
"... The energy that will kick this whole thing off is still way out in the Pacific," the weather service says.
It's spring in the upper Midwest.
"This time of year does bring elements of spring back to the forecast more frequently while we are still dealing with the reality of winter that hangs on for dear life," said Mike Westendorf, director of operations for the Innovative Weather program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Combine all the ingredients this time of year and, sometimes, "We wind up getting thunderstorms and sleet with lightning and even thunder snow in the more significant storm systems," Westendorf said.
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Here’s a look at some of the worst spring-time storms to pummel the state, according to the National Weather Service and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives:
- March 2-4, 1881 — Blizzard drops 2 to 4 feet of snow across southern and central Wisconsin. Milwaukee reported 28.5 inches. Drifts were reportedly 20 feet high.
- April 8-9, 1973 — 10 to 20 inches of snow falls on southern Wisconsin. Milwaukee got a foot. The Brewers' opening day game had to be postponed.
- March 4-5, 1976 — “Incredible ice storm,” across southeast Wisconsin still stands as one of the state’s worst natural disasters. Ice accumulations ranged up to five inches in diameter on wires and tree limbs. Counties that were declared federal disaster areas as a result included Calumet, Columbia, Crawford, Dane, Dodge, Fond du Lac, Grant, Green, Iowa, Jefferson, Lafayette, Manitowoc, Ozaukee, Richland, Rock, Sauk, Sheboygan, Vernon, Walworth, Washington and Waukesha.
- May 10, 1990 — Eastern Wisconsin's latest snowstorm on record. "Pretty late in the year, obviously, we got anywhere from 6 to 8 inches of snow across parts of southeast Wisconsin," Davis said. Thousands of trees and tree branches came down under the weight of the heavy snow, and many power lines snapped as the trees/branches fell on them.
- March 13-14, 1997 — Storm pounds central and northeast Wisconsin; 28 inches of snow was reported at Wautoma.
- April 27-28, 2002 — Thunder, lightning and up to 20 inches of heavy, wet snow fell from Florence to Merrill.
- March 18-19, 2005 — 18 to 23 inches of snow in a swath from southern Buffalo County to western Jackson County.
- March 13-14, 2006 — Thunder, lightning and 17 to 32 inches of snow from St. Croix County northeast to Iron County.
- March 21, 2008 — West Allis tallies 18.5 inches, as snow blankets a wide area of southern Wisconsin.
- March 22-23, 2011 — Thunder, lightning and 17.8 inches of snow in Green Bay over two days, the biggest snowstorm there in more than 120 years and the third largest ever. "The storm was also unusual with the number of thunderstorms in the area," according to the weather service office in Green Bay. "The storms were often accompanied by heavy snow and sleet."