Do rising average temps increase risk of winter tornadoes in Wisconsin?

“I’ll always fear for this now,” Matt Artis said.
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Posted at 12:32 PM, Feb 12, 2024

EVANSVILLE — The timing of an EF-2 tornado Thursday in Rock County leaves many Wisconsinites wondering whether rising average winter temperatures means tornadoes will become more common during our coldest season.

Let’s go in-depth with a man dealing with significant damage — and a meteorologist about what this means for the future.

“The barn was actually built in 1921, so it was 103 years old and it’s gone,” said Matt Artis.

It’s a heartbreaking sight for Matt Artis.

“I’ve lived here my whole life and never experienced it this bad with a storm here before,” he said.

His family cattle farm was ripped to shreds in seconds.

“This picture window right here, that got busted out first,” he said.

Matt knew Evansville was under a tornado warning, but he had no idea his home was going to take a direct hit.

“My mom was in the bedroom, she’s disabled,” he said. “I got her in the bathroom which you can see right there and shut the doors and got the dog in there also and we waited for everything to settle down in that before I got out.”

While Matt feels blessed he and his mom are still alive, his livelihood took a devastating blow.

"It’s 34 years I’ve been here and now it’s all gone,” he said.

Matt had no idea that powerful of a tornado was even possible in February. It’s the first February tornado recorded in state history.

Meteorologist Brendan Johnson says record warmth coupled with wind and moisture collided to spark the twister.

“The ingredients were really kind of borderline but when you get temperatures in the 50s in February and dew points also close, you’re going to wind up with this kind of situation,” Brendan said.

Brendan says Milwaukee is coming off of its warmest December on record and one of the warmest Januarys as well.

Historically, it’s a trend seen over the last seven decades in southern Wisconsin.

The Nelson Institute for Environmental Research shows average winter temperatures are up three degrees from 1950 to 2020.

“As temperatures increase, the likelihood or the probability that we run into a potential severe weather situation of course is going to go up, but could we tie this directly to climate change? It’s really hard to say and that’s probably something we’re not prepared to answer at this point,” Brendan said. “This is just one event out of many. If we start to see the frequency of this increase, that’s the important thing. The frequency. That’s when we start to draw those connections to climate change. This was just one event.”

For Matt, something he never used to worry about in the winter will always be in the back of his mind.

“I’ll always fear for this now,” he said. “You have to clean up and rebuild everything and start from scratch which I’ve already done once. So it’s even hard to think I have to do it again.”

Winter tornadoes have happened dozens of times in Wisconsin. Three occurred in January, 6 in December and 24 in March.

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