Severe Winter Weather Awareness Week: Southern Wisconsin’s worst storms

MADISON, Wis. — After our recent mild weather, we saw our first widespread snowfall over the last couple of days, just a reminder that winter isn’t far away.

This week is Winter Weather Awareness Week in Wisconsin, and over the next few nights, our weather team will get you prepared for winter’s worst weather.

Sometimes, that could be a dangerous winter storm.

For many of us, the snowstorm that sets the benchmark is the Madison blizzard of December 3, 1990. Only a week after record warmth with high temperatures in the middle 60s, a low-pressure area took shape in southwestern Missouri and headed northeastward toward Chicago — a textbook path for a southern Wisconsin snowstorm.

Snow began in the early morning hours of December 3 and quickly became heavy, falling at the rate of more than an inch per hour by the morning commute. As lightning flashed overhead, winds gusted to 64 mph here at the station. Heavy snow continued to fall for much of the day before ending that evening. Madison’s official measurement was 17.3 inches at the airport, the heaviest snowfall in a single day.

Another memorable snowstorm struck our area on February 5 and 6, 2008. While the total of 13.4 inches wasn’t quite as much as the 1990 blizzard, the timing of the snow left a huge impact.

The slick roads caused a pair of semi-trucks to slide to a stop on I-39/90 northbound before Highway N. Traffic ground to a halt behind the trucks, and with no way to exit the freeway, over two thousand motorists were stranded behind them as the snow swirled and drifted around them. Some motorists were trapped for up to 12 hours.

After that storm, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation began installing crossing gates on many interstate ramps, allowing them to close the highway during snowstorms before cars get trapped.

While somewhat rare, ice storms can occur here as well. In early March of 1976, two freezing rain events, one on March 1 and 2, and another on March 4 and 5 caused extensive ice accumulations across southern Wisconsin.

Heavy thunderstorms dumped over 2.5 inches of rain into air that was at or below freezing. In some areas, the resulting ice accumulation was as much as 5 inches on tree limbs and power lines, heavy enough to snap utility poles. At one point, more than 600,000 people were without power. It took crews up to ten days to restore power to the hardest-hit areas, leaving many without heat as low temperatures at night tumbled into the teens.

While these extreme storms are infrequent, winter storms of snow and ice occur every year. And sometimes, it only takes a little snow or a thin glaze of ice to get drivers into trouble. Over the next few nights, we will make sure you are ready to deal with whatever mother nature can dish out.