100th Anniversary of the 1913 Great Lakes Storm

The Great Lakes were struck by a major storm 100 years ago on November 7-10, 1913. This was the worst weather-related disaster on the Great Lakes with at least 235 people killed (probably more) and 19 ships sunk. Sustained winds of 50-70 mph were common with wind gusts of up to 90 mph, waves on the Great Lakes of 35 feet, and heavy snow (especially in Ohio).

Bodies from the Wexford washed ashore near Goderich, Ontario, Canada.
Bodies from the Wexford washed ashore near Goderich, Ontario, Canada.

The storm itself was remarkable for its strength and complexity. The storm was the combination of a low-pressure system moving out of Canada and across the Great Lakes with a second low-pressure system moving up from the American Appalachians. Recently, a group from the Detroit NWS office presented a detailed description of the storm, including model-reconstructed wind speeds and wave heights that closely corresponded to the few available observations. Hurricane force winds (greater than 74 mph) lasted from 10 hours on Lake Huron to 20 hours on Lake Superior. Predicted wave heights were up to 36 feet with very steep sides.

Why was this storm so deadly? There were a number of contributing factors, including.

  1. One was that the state of weather forecasting in 1913 was not up to the task of predicting and monitoring conditions before and during this storm. Unlike Tom Skilling, forecasters of the day had little knowledge of how storm systems behave and had no access to radar, satellite, computer models, or even real-time weather observations. As a result, the storm’s development and ferocity was not understood until after the fact.
  2. The storm occurred early in November while the shipping season was still active. As a result, many more vessels were exposed than if the storm had been in late November or early December.
  3. The boats of the day (ships on the Great Lakes are called boats) were not designed to battle storms likes this. They were long and narrow, with a shallow draft, like a giant canoe. As a result, they were easy to capsize. And they were under-powered which made handling even more difficult. Even so, modern-day vessels would have a hard time coping with the 36 foot, steep waves.
  4. Lack of radio communication meant no reports of worsening conditions or distress signals could be sent. Navigation aides were few. With the high seas and heavy snow, landmarks and buoys disappeared from view.

It is hard to do the storm justice in a blog post. Fortunately, there are several great sources for more information on the storm including the ubiquitous Wikipedia article. NOAA has a very comprehensive Centennial Anniversary page.

I have read the classic book “Freshwater Fury” by Frank Barcus and the more recent “White Hurricane: A Great Lakes November Gale and America’s Deadliest Maritime Disaster” by David Brown. There is a new book that I have not read yet – “November’s Fury: The Deadly Great Lakes Hurricane of 1913” by Michael Schumacher. There are several others out there as well. I also found an online copy of the Lake Carrier’s Association 1913 report of the storm.

Weather Maps from November 7-10, 1913

Here are the weather maps from the 1913 archive. The maps look different from today’s maps with a lack of fronts (frontal theory came a few years later) and not much data from Canada. Source: Historical Daily Weather Map series.

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November 7, 1913. Click to enlarge.
November 8, 1913.
November 8, 1913. Click to enlarge.
November 9, 1913. Click to enlarge.
November 9, 1913. Click to enlarge.
November 10, 1913. Click to enlarge.
November 10, 1913. Click to enlarge.

Snowfall Pattern from the Storm

The snowfall from the storm was widespread across the Great Lakes region. I don’t have snowfall totals for Canada. Heavy snow and much-reduced visibility was reported over the Great Lakes themselves. The heaviest snows were in Ohio and West Virginia with amounts in the range of 15 to 20 inches. Because the lakes were still warm in early November, lake-effect snow was widespread.

Cleveland was the one major city hardest hit. They set a 24-hour record of 17.4 inches of snow with a 3-day total of 22.2 inches. Ahead of the snow was widespread ice that combined with high winds to down power and telephone lines. Some photos and descriptions can be found at the Ohio Historical Society.

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Satellite View of Midwestern Storm

NASA has posted low and high resolution satellite photos of the record-setting low-pressure system that rolled through the Midwest last week. They say:

The storm that swept across the center of the United States on October 26 and October 27, 2010, was memorable to those who experienced it because of its strong winds, rain, hail, and widespread tornadoes. Meteorologists get excited about the storm because it set a record for the lowest pressure (not associated with a hurricane) measured over land in the continental United States. At 5:13 p.m. CDT, the weather station in Bigfork, Minnesota recorded 955.2 millibars (28.21 inches of pressure). Pressure is one indicator of a storm’s strength, and this measurement corresponds to the pressure seen in a Category 3 hurricane.

You can read the full story and see the images here.

Satellite view of Midwest storm of late October 2010
Satellite view of Midwest storm of late October 2010 (NASA).

Record Low Pressure on Great Lakes Storm

According to the National Weather Service

New record set today for the lowest pressure in a non-tropical storm in the mainland U.S. The massive storm system barreling across the central U.S. had a minimum central pressure of 28.24″ or 956 mb (equivalent to the minimum pressure of a Category 3 hurricane). This breaks the old record of 28.28″ (958 mb), set on Jan. 26, 1978, during the Blizzard of 1978 (aka the Cleveland Superbomb). This is also lower than the March 1993 Superstorm (aka “The Storm of the Century”), or the “Witch of November” storm that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975, or even the Columbus Day Storm of Oct. 1962.

Strong Storm to Hit Great Lakes

The National Weather Service has predicted a strong low pressure system, or cyclone, to hit the Great Lakes on Tuesday and Wednesday. The central pressure could be as low as 959 millibars (mb) (28.35 in), and associated with strong winds and significant wave heights on the Great Lakes.

 

October 26 forecast
Forecasted surface weather map for Tuesday, October 26, 2010 (NOAA NWS).

 

The Great Lakes are no stranger to storms like this. The most notorious have hit in November and have included high winds, heavy snow, and treacherous waves.

  • The Great Lakes Storm of 1913 – occurred on November 6-11, 1913 and sank 19 ships and killed 250 people. The lowest pressure was 968 mb (28.35 in) with winds up to 90 mph and 35 foot waves;
  • The Armistice Day Storm of 1940 – occurred on November 10-12, 1940, and sank 5 ships and killed 154 people (many were duck hunters caught unprepared by the drastic change in weather). The lowest pressure was 967 mb (28.55 in) with 80 mph winds.
  • Edmund Fitzgerald Storm of 1975 – occurred on November 10-11, 1975, led to sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald with the loss of 29 men. The lowest pressure was 976 mb with winds in the 60-70 mph range with waves heights possibly up to 25 feet.

Two books on the 1913 storm are Freshwater Fury (Barcus 1960) and White Hurricane (Brown 2004). The Wikipedia article is here. The weather conditions are described here. If you do a search on “Great Lakes 1913 Storm” you will find many web links.

For the Armistice Day Storm of 1940, I am not aware of any specific books. I have seen some magazine articles on it over the years. The Wikipedia article is found here. Minnesota Public Radio gives a detailed account of the human toll here. This storm was different from the 1913 storm because many of the deaths occurred on land.

The Edmund Fitzgerald Storm of 1975 is probably the most widely known outside of the Great Lakes region. The loss of life was limited to the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Quite a few books and web sites are devoted to this storm. Here is a journal article that details the weather conditions of that storm.