I have claimed for decades that the phrase “normal Wisconsin weather” is an oxymoron.
Consider a couple weeks ago, when the normal high temperature was 66. On April 30, the high was 86, 20 degrees above “normal.” Two days later, on May 2, the high was 44, 22 degrees below “normal.” Average them out, and you get 65, one degree below “normal,” but if you dressed for “normal,” you were either too hot or too cold. (In the case of May 1 — high 77, low 44 — possibly both on the same day.)
Not convinced? Consider this: Sunday's low of 32 tied the all-time record low for May 12. (Previously set in 1896, by the way.) Tuesday's high of 91 missed the all-time record high for May 14 by one degree. (That record was set in 1932.) That is a spread of 59 degrees between Sunday at 6 a.m. and Tuesday at 4 p.m.
Another normal feature of Wisconsin weather this time of year is severe weather, including tornadoes. You’ve heard of the phrase “tornado alley” to describe the part of the U.S. — the Plains states and southern Midwest — that has historically had the most tornadoes. Wisconsin has its own “tornado alley,” which runs along U.S. 151 from Jamestown to Fond du Lac.
I’ve lived in four — in chronological order, Dane, Grant, Dodge and Fond du Lac counties — of the six counties with the most tornado activity in this state since the National Weather Service started keeping track, all obviously along 151. I have yet to see a tornado. In 1993, there were two funnel cloud reports near Cuba City, where we lived at the time. Both days, we were in Madison instead. One year, the state’s first tornadoes were a few miles west of where we lived, but never made it to us. One of my professional goals is to get a tornado photo, as long as I don’t get killed in the process.
In early June 1984, two months after my grandfather died, I drove from Madison to Boscobel to pick up my grandmother for my brother’s high school graduation. There was severe weather in the forecast, but all I recall hearing was some thunder in the distance. The next morning, I turned on the car and heard some bizarre radio mentions of civil defense. And then we drove through Black Earth, where the tornado went after it plowed through Barneveld and killed eight people. There was a huge tree on U.S. 14 on the east side of Black Earth — I’d guess the trunk was 10 feet wide — that had been uprooted, and there was considerable additional damage.
On a June day in 2004, I had to pull my sons out of their bath for a tornado warning in Ripon; my wife, sisters-in-law and mother-in-law watched pieces of building go by their Madison hotel where they were staying while my father-in-law was in the hospital; my parents had a tornado one mile from them near Waupaca; and my aunt noticed it was getting dark when she drove back home in Appleton from a golf game, just as a tornado touched down a few miles behind her. That would be an amusing story were it not for the fact that the first tornado in this paragraph sucked a man out of his basement and killed him.
My favorite story about severe weather and “normal” weather dates back to 1991. I was working at the Grant County Herald Independent one March day when, somewhat out of nowhere, a tornado warning was issued. My then-girlfriend (now wife) was working for the Grant County Department of Social Services, and was visiting a client in the client’s mobile home at the exact moment the tornado sirens went off. The tornado touched down at a farm near Beetown, witnessed by the Herald Independent’s long-time Bloomington/River Ridge sports reporter, John Patterson.
This was the afternoon before a storm spotter session, of course. And on the way to the storm spotter session that evening, it snowed, of course.
KWWL-TV (channel 7) meteorologist Jeff Kennedy gave a fascinating talk about severe weather at the Platteville fire station in late April. I’ve been to a lot of them over the years, but I learn at least a couple new things at each one. Kennedy talked about the averages of severe weather for Wisconsin — 29 severe thunderstorm watches per year, 11 tornado watches per year, five to 10 severe thunderstorm warnings per county per year, and one or two tornado warnings per county per year.
Meteorologist Mike Smith, who has a blog (meteorologicalmusings.blogspot.com) and is on Facebook, showed a map that showed the number of days since the last tornado warning issued by each NWS office. The last tornado warning issued by the La Crosse office (which does forecasts for Grant County) was, as of the date of this edition of your favorite weekly newspaper, 252 days ago. (That would be, I assume, the Sept. 4 Bloomington tornado.) The last tornado warning issued by the Milwaukee office (which does forecasts for Lafayette and Iowa counties) was 693 days, nearly two years ago. The last tornado warning issued by the Quad Cities office (which does forecasts across the Mississippi River) was 373 days ago.
(Side note: Kennedy said the range of NWS weather radars is 110 miles, and the farther from the radar site, the less they see. Platteville is about 110 miles from the La Crosse radar and 120 miles from the Sullivan radar. The closest radar is 90 miles south, in Davenport, although the NWS Quad Cities office doesn’t handle Grant County. Why have people watched Iowa TV stations for years? Because of the weather.)
The number of tornado warnings has increased (well, until the last year or so) because of improvements in weather technology and the NWS’ issuing tornado warnings for what I call STCOPATs — a Severe Thunderstorm Capable of Producing a Tornado; that is, a severe thunderstorm with rotation, which generates tornadoes. The problem with STCOPATs is that tornadoes come from rotation, but rotation doesn’t always mean a tornado is on the way. Then again, radar isn’t that accurate either — Kennedy said 70 percent of tornado warnings based on radar sightings don’t turn out to contain tornadoes. That leads to “warning fatigue,” when people ignore or go outside when the sirens go off instead of heading to the basement.
“Warning fatigue” is a theme of Smith’s book, When the Sirens Were Silent, about the 161 people who died in Joplin, Mo., from an EF-5 tornado, in some cases because of inaccurate warnings and in some cases because of ignored warnings.