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Wisconsin had its first-ever February tornados. What does this mean for winters in the future?

A barn is completely destroyed, with a shattered foundation and debris spread on the ground.
NWS Milwaukee
A barn tipped off its foundation in the Evansville area after the tornadoes.

Earlier this month, Wisconsin’s first recorded February tornadoes hit the town of Evansville in south central Wisconsin. Though all injuries were minor, at least 20 homes were significantly damaged or destroyed.

Lake Effect spoke with Milwaukee-based National Weather Service Meteorologist Tim Halbach about the February tornadoes and what they could tell us about Wisconsin winters in the future.

The following are excerpts from that interview, some portions edited, paraphrased or consolidated for clarity.

Can you tell us about the Tornadoes that hit Wisconsin earlier this month? 

We had a rare situation where we got tornadoes in February. In Wisconsin, the database before the 1980s isn't that great, but from what we've got, there's never been a tornado that happened in this month. We had a situation where things were more perkier than expected. The sun came out, things got pretty warm, and we had a pretty potent low pressure system come through that spun up some storms and created some tornadoes down in the southern part of the state. These were life changing tornadoes for some people that were in the path of the EF-2 tornado that went by Evansville going over towards Lake Koshkonong.

In my nine years here. It's one of the stronger tornadoes we've had in southern Wisconsin. The biggest thing that I'll remember is just going door to door and talking with people and every single person I talked to said they got the warning. They knew it was coming, and they were in their basement and in shelter when the tornado came through. We were pretty lucky that there weren't more injuries or fatalities that occurred from it.

You say this is a pretty rare occurrence. Were you pretty surprised by the tornadoes and just how unusual is it to see tornadoes here in the winter? 

Well, it's very unusual. One of the things that we typically have is snow cover. When we have a snowpack, you're not going to get tornadoes when something like that is down, but we had a week or two where it was actually winter in January and we got all the snow. Then over the last month or so, all that snow packed eroded. This has made things a little bit easier to be warmer now. If we did have the snowpack, we wouldn't have had the tornadoes that occurred. We probably would have had rain or something like that, but probably not severe weather.

One of the things that we've seen is that the more and more opportunities there are where there's no snowpack in the winter or things are just a little bit warmer, it increases the chances that when a weather system comes through, we've got things in place that normally wouldn't be in place. Regardless of that, getting a tornado that was an EF-2 that was on the ground for 26 miles, that's a really strong tornado compared to a lot of tornadoes we've had over the past 10 to 15 years.

How strong were the tornadoes, and how did it affect the Evansville area and its residence? 

There were two tornadoes. There was an EF-1 down in Green County. Then, there was a merger that happened with the storm, and that's when it got stronger. We had an EF-2 tornado that occurred from Evansville, near Edgerton, and then ended up going kind of northwest of Lake Koshkonong in Jefferson County. On the path of the EF-2 tornado, we saw a lot of barns that were destroyed. We had some houses that had roofs missing on them.

After a tornado hits, we also talk to the people to hear what they had to say. Maybe a third of the people went outside to look at it and see if they could see it when it was coming. Most of the other people just went into their basement, turned on the TV, and started hearing what was coming their way. Thankfully, there was only one report of somebody being injured. What we mainly heard from a lot of people is they got the warning and were in their shelter, which are the actions we want people to take.

What can Wisconsin's first February tornado tell us about how climate change is affecting where and when this type of weather tends to happen? 

It's hard to attribute one weather event happening because of climate change. Our winter this year has been more so driven by the El Nino pattern that's been out in the Pacific Ocean, which has made it warmer here overall. But in terms of just climate change for Wisconsin, a lot of it is dealing with the winter time and how warm or warmer it is. Obviously, we'll still have cold spells and things like that, but the frequency of it being warmer will mean less snowpack and maybe a shortening of the winter season a bit and just more potential reps for when these storm systems come through that the environments are there for more severe weather than winter storms. Again, it’s hard to attribute things to climate change. Last year, we had tornadoes in late March; the year before that, we had tornadoes in western Wisconsin in December. We can get severe weather any time of year, so it's going to be important to be prepared for it even in the wintertime.

What do you recommend Wisconsinites do to be prepared and stay safe?

We always tell people to have multiple ways of getting warnings. Most of the people that I've ever talked to who have been in the path of a tornado got the warning first over their phone. The wireless emergency alerts that come over your phone are critical to be alerted to that. If you get an alert on your phone, pay attention to it and seek more information. I tell people to turn on the TV meteorologists that they like to pay attention to. They can give you more play-by-play on what's happening and what the risk is for your area.

Do you have anything else that you want to add?

I was driving home from my son's hockey practice the night the tornadoes were happening. I took a glance at the radar as we left the hockey rink and thought we could make it before the storm. I got one exit away from where I live, and all of a sudden, the hailstorm came in and started pummeling my car. I was able to get out of the hailstorm and back home, but it just made me think about how susceptible people are if they are in their cars. I would recommend that if you have errands and things to do and you know there are storms coming in, just put them off for a little bit and just wait out the storms. It's really hard to know how bad things are while you're driving. Particularly at night, you can't see a whole lot of what might be coming your way. That would be just my pitch for people to wait out the storms until they pass just so they can pay more attention to what's going on and stay safe.


Nadya is WUWM's sixth Eric Von fellow.
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