The Gales of November: Storms on the Great Lakes

The Great Lakes has had its share of infamous storms in November. The worst weather-related disaster on the Great Lakes occurred on November 7-10, 1913, and was covered in another blog post. The two other storms in the November Big Three are the Armistice Day Storm of November 11, 1940 (covered here and here) and the Edmund Fitzgerald Storm of November 10, 1975 (covered here and here).

Why is November so notorious for these storms? There are a number of factors involved. One is that November is the beginning of the transition between fall and winter in the Great Lakes region. As a result, there is a strong gradient between warm, moist air to the south and cold, dry air to the north. Storms, called extratropical cyclones, form and travel along these boundaries. In fact, researchers have documented that storms out of western Canada (aka Alberta Clippers) and out of Colorado track over the Great Lakes in the October/November time frame.

Predominant storm tracks for the Great Lakes region in fall.
Predominant storm tracks for the Great Lakes region in fall. The exact position of these tracks varies from study to study, but the overall pattern remains.

In addition to the storm tracks, the waters in the Great Lakes are still relatively warm so they inject heat and moisture into any passing system, causing them to intensify as well as  produce lots of lake-effect snow.

Finally, November is typically the tail end of the Great Lakes shipping season. So boats are making that one last trip and may be pressing their luck on the weather. November is an active time for hunters. In the Armistice Day Storm of November 11, 1940, numerous duck hunters were caught in the open and at least 13 died in Illinois.

The title of this article is a nod to Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”. That song and the story of the Edmund Fitzgerald inspired my life-long interest in Great Lakes storms.

Edmund Fitzgerald (1971) from Wikimedia Commons.

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.