How unusual was the May 10, 1990 snow storm?

If you’re under the age of, oh let’s say 27ish, you probably think of the snow storm of May 10, 1990 as just an old tall tale your parents tell you. Just like the tales of walking to school every day, uphill both ways, with no shoes, while carrying newspapers for their afternoon route, and any other hardship they could dream up. On a side note my dad used to tell me things like this. Then one day I saw his childhood home, which sat on flat land directly across the street from his school. Ugh, that walk must have just been terrrrrrrible!

Well the May 10th snow storm did happen. It wasn’t the end of the world but it did cause problems most snow storms do not. Since it was so late into spring nearly all trees had sprouted their leaves. When the back breaking, heavy, wet snow fell it not only stuck to branches like any winter snow but stuck to leaves as well. This multiplied the weight of the snow a tree could hold until… CRACK… the branches started breaking and 30,000 people were without power. The 3” to 8” snow caused $4,000,000 in damages.

So how unusual was this storm? The short answer is once in a lifetime, or maybe twice? The record book going back to the late 1800s shows this date as well as May 3, 1935 as getting 3.2” of snow in Milwaukee (of course most of the damage on May 10th happened where amounts where 6”-8”). No other date in May has ever seen 2” or more. In fact we’ve never seen more than a trace of snow after May 11th.

What about early autumn snow? This gets a bit interesting. On the night over October 19, 1989 a cool rain changed to snow and continued into the morning of the 20th. The snow storm dropped 6.3” of sticky snow as temps hovered just above the freezing mark. Now this time many leaves have already fallen or were ready to come down. Still, breaking branches from trees that couldn’t hold the snow cause power outages for 8,000. So the “winter” of 1989-1990 started before all the leaves fell and continued until after new leaves formed.  These two events are the calendar’s earliest and latest snowfalls of +3” (with some areas getting +6”) on record for Milwaukee.

On that note, let’s hope we don’t see a repeat this October!