(adapted from Climatography of the United States No. 60, NOAA)


The Wisconsin climate is typically continental with some modification by Lakes Michigan and Superior. The cold, snowy winters favor a variety of winter sports, and the warm summers appeal to thousands of vacationers each year. About two-thirds of the annual precipitation falls during the growing season (freeze-free period). It is normally adequate for vegetation, although drought is occasionally reported. The climate is most favorable for dairy farming; the primary crops are corn, small grains, hay, and vegetables. The rapid succession of storms moving from west to east and southwest to northeast account for the stimulating climate.


The average annual temperature varies from 39 F in the north to about 50 F in the south. The highest temperature ever recorded in Wisconsin was 114 F at Wisconsin Dells on July 13, 1936, and the lowest temperature on record was minus 55 F, reported from Couderay on both February 2 and February 4, 1996.

During more than one-half of the winters, temperatures fall to minus 40 F or lower, and almost every winter temperatures of minus 30 or colder are reported from northern stations. Summer temperatures above 90 average 2 to 4 days in northern counties and about 14 days in southern districts. During marked cool outbreaks in summer months, the central lowlands occasionally report freezing temperatures.

The freeze-free season ranges from around 80 days per year in the upper northeast and north-central lowlands to about 180 days in the Milwaukee area. The pronounced moderating effect of Lake Michigan is well illustrated by the fact that the growing season of 140 to 150 days along the east-central coastal area is of the same duration as in the southwestern Wisconsin valleys. The short growing season in the central portion of the State is attributed to a number of factors, among them an inward cold air drainage and the low heating capacities of the peat and sandy soils. The average date of last spring freeze ranges from early May along the Lake Michigan coastal area and southern counties to early June in the northernmost counties. The first autumn freezes occur in late August and early September in the northern and central lowlands to Mid-October along the Lake Michigan coastline. However, a July freeze is not entirely unusual in the north and central Wisconsin lowlands.


The long-term mean annual precipitation ranges from 30 to 34 inches over most of the Western Uplands and Northern Highlands, then diminishes to about 28 inches along most of the Wisconsin Central Plain and Lake Superior Coastal area. The higher average annual precipitation coincides generally with the highest elevations, particularly the windward slopes of the Western Uplands and Northern Highlands. Thunderstorms average about 30 per year in northern Wisconsin to about 40 per year in southern counties, and occur mostly in the summer. Occasional hail, wind, and lightning damage are also reported.

The average seasonal snowfall varies from about 30 inches at Beloit to well over 100 inches in northern Iron County along the steep western slope of the Gogebic Range. The heavy snowfall along the Gogebic Range is a result of the prevailing cold northerly winter winds blowing across the relatively warm water of Lake Superior. Greater average snowfall is recorded over the Western Uplands and Eastern Ridges than in the adjacent lowlands. The mean dates of first snowfall of consequence, an inch or more, vary from early November in northern localities to early December in southern Wisconsin counties. Average annual duration of snow cover ranges from 85 days in southernmost Wisconsin to more than 140 days along Lake Superior. The snow cover acts as protective insulation for grasses, autumn seeded grains, alfalfa, and other vegetation.


Wisconsin lies in the upper Midwest between Lake Superior, Upper Michigan, Lake Michigan, and the Mississippi and Saint Croix Rivers. Its greatest length is 320 miles, greatest width 295 miles, and total area 56,066 square miles. Glaciation has largely determined the topography and soils of the State, except for the 13,360 square miles of driftless area in southwestern Wisconsin. The various glaciations created rolling terrain with nearly 9,000 lakes and several areas of marshes and swamps. Elevations range from about 600 feet above sea level along the Lake Superior and Lake Michigan shores and in the Mississippi flood plain in southwestern Wisconsin to nearly 1,950 feet at Rib and Strawberry Hills.

The Northern Highlands, a plateau extending across northern Wisconsin, is an area of about 15,000 square miles with elevations from 1,000 to 1,800 feet. This area has many lakes and is the origin of most of the major streams in the State. The slope down to the narrow Lake Superior plain is quite steep. A comparatively flat, crescent shaped lowland lies immediately south of the Northern Highlands and embodies nearly one-forth of Wisconsin. The eastern ridges and lowlands to the southeast of the Central Plains are the most densely populated and have the highest concentration of industry and farms. The uplands of southwestern Wisconsin west of the ridges and lowlands and south of the Central Plains make up about one-fourth of the State. This is the roughest section of the State, rising 200 to 350 feet above the Central Plains and 100 to 200 feet above the Eastern Ridges and Lowlands. The Mississippi River bluffs rise 230 to 650 feet.

The land drains into Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, and the Mississippi River. The Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers form most of the western boundary. About one-half of the northwestern portion of the State is drained through the Chippewa River, while the remainder of this region drains directly into the Mississippi or St. Croix and into Lake Superior. The Wisconsin River has its source at a small lake nearly 1,600 feet above mean sea level on the Upper Michigan boundary and drains most of central Wisconsin. Most of its tributaries also spring from the many lakes in the north. Except for the Rock River, a Mississippi River tributary which flows through northern Illinois, eastern Wisconsin drains into Lake Michigan.

Most of the streams and lakes in the State are ice-covered from late November to late March. Snow covers the ground in practically all the winter months, except in extreme southern areas. Flooding is most frequent and most serious in April, due to the melting of snow and spring rains. During this period, flood conditions are often aggravated by ice jams which back up the flood waters. Excessive rains of the thunderstorm type sometimes produce tributary flooding or flash flooding along the smaller streams and creeks.