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Winter Storms in Wisconsin

Protect yourself and your family before the first winter storm strikes.

What Makes a Winter Storm?

Cold air: Below freezing temperatures in the clouds and near the ground are necessary to make snow and ice.

Moisture: Needed to form clouds and precipitation.

Lift: Something to raise the moist air to form clouds and precipitation, such as a front.

Winter storm

Where Do Winter Storms Develop?

Storms that affect Wisconsin develop over southeast Colorado, northwest Canada, and over the southern Plains.  These storms move toward the Midwest and use both the southward plunge of cold air from Canada and the northward flow of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico to produce heavy snow over the region.

"Alberta Clippers," which develop in the lee of the Canadian Rockies and move southeast toward Wisconsin, not only bring accumulating snow, but also strong winds and extremely cold air to the state.

"Lake effect" snowstorms develop as cold air moves across the relatively warmer waters of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior.  Moisture from the lakes is then deposited as heavy snow within several miles of the shore.

Winter Storm Climatology

On average, northeast and north-central Wisconsin experiences 3 to 5 winter storms a season and a significant ice storm once every 4 or 5 years.

The average date of the first snowstorm in Wisconsin is November 10. Click here for a chart and map of normal snowfall across the area.


Be Prepared...
Before the Storm Strikes

At home and at work...
Have available:

  • Flashlight and extra batteries
  • Battery-powered NOAA Weather Radio and commercial radio
  • Extra food and water. High energy food or food that requires no cooking is best
  • First-aid supplies
  • Emergency heating source, such as a fireplace or space heater -- make sure you have proper ventilation

In cars and trucks...
Plan your travel and check the latest weather reports to avoid the storm. If you do travel:

  • Check and winterize your vehicle before the winter season begins
  • Carry a winter storm survival kit that includes: blankets/sleeping bags, flashlight with extra batteries, first-aid kit, knife, high-calorie non-perishable food, extra clothing to keep dry, sand or cat litter, shovel, windshield scraper and brush, tool kit, and booster cables
  • Keep your gas tank near full to avoid ice in the tank and fuel lines
  • Try not to travel alone
  • Let others know your timetable and primary and alternate routes

When Caught in a Winter Storm...

Outside In a Vehicle At Home
Find Shelter:
  • Try to stay dry.
  • Cover all exposed parts of body.
No Shelter:
  • Prepare a wind-break for protection from the wind.
  • Build a fire for heat and to attract attention.
  • Place rocks around fire to absorb and reflect heat.
Do Not Eat Snow:
  • It will lower your body temperature. Melt it first.
Stay in Your Vehicle and Run the Motor Sparingly:
  • About ten minutes each hour for heat.
  • Open the window a bit for fresh air to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Make sure exhaust pipe is not blocked.
Make Yourself Visible to Rescuers:
  • Turn on dome light at night.
  • Tie colored cloth to antenna.
Stay Inside:
  • Make sure you provide proper ventilation when using alternate heat sources.
  • If no heat, close off unneeded rooms and stuff towels under doors.
Eat and Drink
  • Food provides body with energy for producing its own heat.  Non-alcoholic beverages prevent dehydration.
Dress Warmly

Additional Information

Be Informed! -- Winter weather forecasts and advisories from the NWS

Wind Chill Chart

The NWS Weather Awareness Page -- Winter safety and awareness topics