Love it or hate it, snowstorms are an unavoidable part of Wisconsin life. Longtime residents know massive blizzards and heavy snow aren’t confined to the winter months; flakes routinely fly as early as October, and as late as May.
However, the biggest storms usually happen this time of year, which is why we’re looking back at eight that made history:
Blizzard of 1881
When: March 2-4
Total Snowfall: 28.5 inches
The Blizzard of 1881 happened before the state kept official records, but it’s often cited as the worst snowstorm in Madison history. The storm lasted three days– dumping between two and four feet of snow across southern and central Wisconsin. And if the snow accumulation wasn’t enough, gusting winds created drifts of up to 20 feet!
Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940
When: November 11-12
Total Snowfall: 28.7 inches
Not every snowstorm hits the entire state, but this blizzard sure did. Until 2011, the Armistice Day Blizzard was recognized as the worst in the state’s history. That November, temperatures were in the 40s and 50s, until they suddenly plummeted and the storm dumped a foot of heavy snow on the entire state, and nearly 2.5 feet in places like La Crosse. More than 150 people died during the storm, which also stretched into Minnesota, Illinois, and Michigan.
Great Blizzard of 1947
When: January 28-30
Total Snowfall: 18-27 inches
Although this storm didn’t drop as much snow as others, its duration is what cemented its place in history. During the longest-lasting winter storm ever recorded in southern Wisconsin, 18 to 27 inches of snow fell from Milwaukee to Madison, and winds created snowdrifts up to 15 feet tall. When the storm finally ended, Milwaukee residents could only travel city streets by sled.
When: November 9-10
Total Snowfall: 10-14 inches
Although a foot of snow is pretty normal from November through March, especially up north, this storm came with hurricane-force winds. By day two, residents faced a complete whiteout and sustained winds of more than 40 mph. The ferocious winds caused 15 foot waves on Lake Superior.
1997 Spring Snowstorm
When: March 13-14
Total Snowfall: 25 inches
This snowstorm dumped a foot of snow across the state, but a narrow band spanning from La Crosse to Green Bay received much more: nearly 25 inches! Immediately, many cities and towns set daily snow total records, even in this extra-snowy year. In 1997, more than 275 inches of snow fell in Hurley, Wisconsin– that town’s snowiest season to date.
Blizzard of 1999
When: January 2-4
Total Snowfall: 20 inches
While the Blizzard of ‘99 hit Chicago the hardest, Wisconsin cities received at least 15 inches of snow. Some areas in the east-central part of the state saw close to 20 inches and drifts up to 8 feet thanks to wind gusts topping 60 mph. More than 100 people died from snowstorm-related accidents, which included a 60-car interstate pileup.
2008 February Snowstorm
When: February 5-6
Total Snowfall: 20 inches
This massive storm came with thundersnow and major winds that caused blowing and drifting. Many cities received at least a foot of new snow, while Beloit, Delevan, and Ft. Atkinson reported more than 20 inches. The 2008 storm is unforgettable for some because the major backup it caused on I-90– forcing some drivers to spend the night in their cars.
Groundhog Day Blizzard of 2011
When: January 31-February 2
Total Snowfall: 26 inches
The Groundhog Day Blizzard of 2011 is Wisconsin’s current record holder– topping the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940 as the biggest snowfall in 24 hours. Southeastern Wisconsin was hit hardest, causing then-Governor Walker to declare a state of emergency in 29 counties. Walworth County received 26 inches of snow, and Kenosha and Racine Counties each received 24.
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