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      The Freak Snowstorm of May 1990

      A large, wintry-looking upper trough was building over the Plains the morning of May 9, 1990.

      A big snowstorm in May is unusual even in the Upper Peninsula. The far western U.P. had one to open the month last week. It did not seem all that unusual this year after the cold, snowy spring. However the storm that hit 23 years ago starting today was really a freak. It followed record-breaking early season heat that began around April 20, 1990 and continued right up to the day before the storm.

      Steve Brown, a high school student living in Norway at the time, remembers that day: ??It felt really warm. I was up in Marquette. There were thunderstorms, it was like summer.?? The official high on May 8 was 76 degrees??a record for the date. Bark River in western Delta County topped out at 82. It was the last day in a series of six record highs within 16 days that included a sultry 89 degrees on April 25. The thundershowers that developed that afternoon formed along a cold front that sank into the area from the northwest. The temperature fell sharply after the frontal passage and the bout of warm spring weather that induced a remarkably early green-up, came to an abrupt end.

      Out west, an upper-air trough in the Rockies supported low-pressure development in the Western High Plains, and the weather map suddenly took on a wintry look (Images 1, 2 & 3 above). I remember looking at the maps and charts and computer forecast models and thinking to myself, ??If this was a month earlier, we??d get hammered with heavy snow.?? The low in the Plains was forecast to come toward the Great Lakes and deepen while drawing in colder air from the north. The time of the year and the fact that it had been so warm the last two weeks provided a forecast quandary: How much snow would actually fall and with the warm ground, how much would stick? It seemed wise to mention how wintry the system looked and warn folks that there would likely be a change from rain to snow, at least at the tail end of the event.

      The next day saw a thickening overcast as the morning wore on. The air remained chilly, with the temperature rising little from an early-morning start in the 30s to 40s over Upper Michigan. About mid-day a few ice pellets and a flake of snow came down in Marquette. Sprinkles of rain followed and then the precipitation quit.

      As part of my television duties, I spoke to a class at Gilbert Elementary School in Gwinn during the early afternoon. At the time, I showed slides as part of my presentation, so the shades in the classroom were drawn and the lights were out. I was telling the students how interesting this developing storm looked; how ??if it was a month earlier, we would get a big snow,?? and so on. At that point, the teacher interrupted me. She pulled up the shade and said, ??Look.?? Outside, a thick fall of heavy, wet snowflakes had begun.

      It never did change back to rain over a good portion of the north central highlands of Upper Michigan. At lake-level, it was a different story; a mixture of rain and snow changed to a driving rain that continued all night in Marquette. Down in Norway, Steve Brown was in history class when the leading edge of the storm??s precipitation shield reached there. ??I remember looking out the window,?? Brown recalls, ??and it looked like it was starting to mix with some flakes of wet snow. I thought, ??that can??t be.?? But, it started to mix with snow, and then changed back to rain.?? It rained there all night, too. Brown, a cooperative observer for the NWS, measured two inches of rain and it was still raining the next morning.

      In the highlands of the north central U.P., it snowed all night and was still snowing heavily the morning of the 10th, with an increasing northerly wind. The snow took a while to accumulate because of the warm ground. The snow cover never amounted to more than a foot or so, yet there was over three inches water-equivalent and an estimated total of just over 22 inches in Negaunee Township. In Marquette, the precipitation changed to snow in the early morning and began to accumulate slowly. Total accumulation near lake-level amounted to around 8 inches.

      In Norway, the changeover occurred during the morning commute. ??At ten in the morning it was probably a quarter mile visibility, just heavy, heavy snow,?? remembers Brown. ??No one could pay attention in school because it was May and just a whiteout, huge flakes?|it just came down like crazy.?? Schools in Norway were dismissed at noon. ??We hadn??t been let out that whole winter and it was May and we got let out because it was so bad,?? says Brown. Along with the two inches of rain, he measured 10 inches of snow from the storm.

      To the east, in Bark River, NWS cooperative observer Larry Wanic checked in with 6.5 inches of snow and a storm total of over 2.33 inches water equivalent. In Menominee, the combination of heavy snow and strong winds wreaked havoc on cable and power lines. ??We??ve got so many outages I can??t begin to list them,?? said a power company spokesman during the height of the storm. ??We??ve got outages from Daggett to Pensaukee [Wisconsin] and all the way west to Suring.?? The freakish storm dumped significant snow as far south as the western suburbs of Milwaukee.

      The snow didn??t stick around very long. The next day the sun shone brightly with highs topping out in the 50s. The snow disappeared quickly, and while there was a lot of standing water and a brief rise in stream levels, dry, warm weather preceding the storm allowed the ground to easily soak up the last vestiges of the May 1990 snowstorm without major flooding problems.