How unusual was the May 10, 1990 snow storm?

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3 to 8 inches of snow fell in eastern Wisconsin on May 10, 1990

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!


  • Elizabeth

    Wasn’t that the ‘snow’ storm that was rain that froze on the tree branches and they broke off from the ice? Or was there actually another storm a year or two earlier in May??? Because you just mention snow here and I remember driving home at about 4 a.m. from school on icy roads and branches were covered with ice when I woke up to the sound of something similar to firecrackers when the branches were breaking from ice.

    • Phil

      I remember it actually being snow – perhaps it varied per location (I was in the Menomonee Falls area) and yes, many trees/branches were down the next day. I did get fairly warm the next day as well and most of the snow was gone by noon IIRC

    • James

      It was snow, I remember driving in the stuff. The ice was in the storm of 1976, and was on March 4-5.

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