When does tornado season start?

The tornado that struck Stoughton on August 18, 2005, is seen southwest of Highway 51 as it approached the city.  (Photo credit: Dale Bernstein, NOAA/NWS)

Wisconsin has had tornadoes in every month of the year except February. We can have tornadoes almost anytime, although the chances of having one in winter are pretty small.

June is the month with the largest number of tornadoes in Wisconsin, with 95 percent of tornadoes occurring between the months of April and September.

We typically define the tornado season for a particular area as the time of year when tornado occurrence there is at its peak. Tornado season peaks in March and April in the Southeast but not until late June or early July in the Upper Midwest. For the entire U.S., May is the month with the greatest number of tornadoes.

For a tornado to occur there must be the right ingredients coming together in a particular place. Severe weather requires warm, moist air near the ground and a change in wind speed and direction, or wind shear, with height above the surface. Since springtime is when the lower atmosphere is warming up, that’s when we start hearing about tornadoes. This continues through summer.

So far, 2017 has seen an active tornado season for the nation. As of the weekend, the U.S. has seen 413 tornadoes that have led to 27 deaths. On average, Wisconsin averages 19 tornadoes a year. There have been 1,537 documented tornadoes in Wisconsin since 1884, although sightings prior to 1950 are very incomplete, as many in rural areas were not reported.

While any tornado should be considered life threatening, most tornadoes that occur in Wisconsin are considered weak, with wind speeds less than 110 mph.

— Steve Ackerman and Jonathan Martin, professors in the UW-Madison department of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, are guests on WHA radio (970 AM) at 11:45 a.m. the last Monday of each month.

Category: Meteorology, Seasons, Severe Weather

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Do Major League games get canceled due to snow?

Snow removal begins in the infield of Wrigley Field on March 2, 2015, as the Chicago Cubs’ opening day approaches. (Photo credit: Charles Rex Arbogast, Associated Press)

In this country, Opening Day of the Major League Baseball season is more likely to be considered the start of spring than the vernal equinox that precedes it by two weeks each year.

However, as committed baseball fans surely know, the start of the season does not mandate the start of the warm season. In fact, though no definitive record of the total number of Major League games postponed by snow exists, quite a number of opening weeks have experienced widespread disruption as a result of early season snow. Most recently, opening weeks in 2007 and 2013 were plagued by numerous cancellations across both leagues.

One of the more colorful examples of snow in the early season occurred in 1907 when the Philadelphia Phillies traveled to New York’s Polo Grounds to begin the season against the hometown Giants.

Opening Day was the day after a major snowstorm, and groundskeepers had been forced to shovel large drifts of snow onto the outer edges of the field. After seeing their team fall behind 3-0, disgruntled Giants fans began throwing snowballs onto the field. These first volleys quickly became a full-fledged snowball fight. Before long, home plate umpire Bill Klem was struck in the head by a snowball and immediately called a forfeit in favor of the Phillies.

The threat of snow during the opening week of the season seems minimal this year, though it is almost certain a few cold days and nights will greet the first few weeks of the season in Milwaukee as easterly winds off Lake Michigan can be bone-chilling right through late May.

Category: Seasons, Severe Weather

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Is springtime pothole season?

The spring freeze-and-thaw cycle of pavements accelerates the formation of potholes. (Photo credit: State Journal archives)

Many drivers probably consider early spring to be pothole season.

A pothole is a structural failure in a road surface.

Potholes result from a combination of traffic and water in the underlying soil.

Many roadways are constructed in layers.

The top layer is water resistant and curved to drain water off the road and onto the shoulder.

Underlying the layer we drive on is gravel and soil. Water can seep below the top surface into the underlying materials. Water weakens the soil that lies beneath the pavement, and then stresses due to traffic weaken the pavement and with time, and heavy loads, the pavement breaks up.

We live in an area that experiences freezing and thawing, particularly in spring. This freeze-and-thaw cycle of the pavements accelerates this pothole-forming process.

Water can seep into the upper soil level, but not penetrate the frozen soil layer below. If this water freezes, it expands and takes up more space under the pavement, causing the pavement to expand, bend or crack. This weakens the pavement material.

Then, when ice melts during the day, there is a gap under the pavement where the water was trapped, weakening the support of the pavement. The weight of the vehicles passing over this weak spot in the road can displace and break the pavement, creating a pothole.

Repairing potholes is a challenge, as one should not only fill the hole but also seal it to keep water from getting into any cracks. Cleaning out the loose debris and filling it with a hot and cold asphalt patch is a common approach to fixing a pothole.

Madison offers a website for pothole-reporting by citizens at www.cityofmadison.com/transportation/potholepatrol.

Category: Seasons, Weather Dangers

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Is there a “State Tournament Snowstorm” legacy?

WIAA Division 1 state tournament semifinal at the Kohl Center in 2017. Only four times in the last 60 years has the tournament been free of snow. (Photo credit: John Hart, State Journal)

A persistent anecdotal piece of weather lore around Madison is that the WIAA’s boys state basketball tournament is always accompanied by a snowstorm.
With the help of Edward Hopkins at the State Climatologist’s Office, we looked into this perception with cold, hard data.

Hopkins provided the daily snowfall totals for every March since 1950. We identified the days on which the boys’ tournament was played in Madison (we chose the boys tournament only because the record was longer).

The results are very interesting. It turns out that only four times in the past 60 years have the approximately five-day-long tournament been free of snow — that is, only about 6 percent of the time does no snow at all fall during the duration of the tournament.

Most of the remaining 63 “snowy” tournaments were characterized by days on which at least a “trace” amount fell (not enough to measure, but enough to say it snowed). A few had days on which 1 or 2 inches fell.

The all-time record amount during the tournament was 12 inches on March 18, 1971 (followed by 2.5 inches the next day).

Only seven tournaments (10.4 percent) had a single day on which more than 3 inches of snow fell.

Such conditions are roughly equivalent to those necessary for issuance of a snow advisory by the National Weather Service.

Thus, though snow is almost always in the air during tournament time (this year there were traces of snow on Thursday and Friday), it appears that less than one in eight tournaments have actually been accompanied by a snowstorm.

— Steve Ackerman and Jonathan Martin, professors in the UW-Madison department of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, are guests on WHA radio (970 AM) at 11:45 a.m. the last Monday of each month.

Category: Meteorology, Seasons

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Is carbon dioxide a major contributor to global warming?

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who recently stated on CNBC that he does not believe that carbon dioxide is a primary contributor to global warming, putting him at odds with scientific consensus and his own agency. (Photo credit: Melissa Phillip, Houston Chronicle)

The Earth’s atmosphere is a mixture of many different gases. Several of these gases are known as “greenhouse gases” because they share the characteristic of being excellent absorbers of infra-red radiation.

Such gases absorb radiation emitted by the Earth that would otherwise escape to space and cool the planet. Upon being absorbed, these gases re-emit a fraction of that energy back downward to the surface, keeping the planet warmer than it would otherwise be. In fact, our Earth would have an average temperature of about zero without these greenhouse gases.

The average temperature of the planet is 59 degrees, dramatically demonstrating the warming effect of these greenhouse gases.

Among the collection of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide (CO2) is the one that has attracted the most attention with regard to global warming. This is likely because CO2 is a by-product of burning fossil fuels, the acknowledged predominant energy source for our nation’s and the world’s economy.

In the last 100 years, the accelerated use of fossil fuels has led to an increase in the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere from 300 to 400 parts per million (400 molecules of every one million are now CO2). The current concentration far exceeds anything the Earth’s atmosphere has experienced in at least the last 800,000 years.

Being a greenhouse gas, the more CO2 there is in the atmosphere, the greater the warming effect.

This basic physical fact is indisputably true. Thus, to hear the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assert that CO2 is not a “primary contributor” to global warming, as he did last week, represents a stunning display of willful ignorance.

It seems unlikely that Americans would tolerate the surgeon general of the United States suggesting that smoking does not cause cancer. Neither should we accept this recent statement by the EPA chief.

— Steve Ackerman and Jonathan Martin, professors in the UW-Madison department of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, are guests on WHA radio (970 AM) at 11:45 a.m. the last Monday of each month.

Category: Climate, Meteorology

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