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.

19131107
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.

map_btd

The Always Great Lakes

I just wanted to share a picture of the Great Lakes, taken from space by astronaut Karen Nyberg on the International Space Station.  She was facing west when she took the shot so Lake Michigan is farthest away. On the lower left are Lakes Erie and Ontario and front and center are Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. Lake Superior was being camera-shy that day and was out of the frame. These five lakes constitute 21 percent of the world’s freshwater supply. Cumulus clouds dot the landscape.

How Are Lake Michigan Water Levels?

Today I had a reporter ask if the recent rains and flooding in Illinois will benefit the low lake levels of Lake Michigan. It has helped.

First of all, the Illinois part of the Lake Michigan basin is relatively small and extends only a few miles inland (see first figure below). As a result, most of the rain that fell in Illinois in recent weeks ended up going down the Illinois River instead. However, as the 30-day multi-sensor precipitation map (second figure) for the Midwest shows, the heavy rains continued over the southern third of Lake Michigan as well as into the Michigan side of the Lake Michigan basin. Amounts in the those areas were as high as 6 to 9 inches in the last 30 days which is well above average.

As a result, we have seen water levels rise on Lake Michigan in April. The third figure below is from the US Army Corps of Engineers Detroit Office showing the status of all five lakes lat week. In the upper right hand corner is the plot for Lake Michigan-Huron. The blue line is this year, and the red line is last year. The blue dots are the forecast and the grey dots are the long-term average. You can see that the Lake Michigan lake level has risen by five inches since the beginning of April. You may want to click on the image to get the larger view or look at the original report, in a higher resolution pdf file, here.

The current forecast for Lake Michigan by the US Army Corps of Engineers, released in early April,  suggests that water levels will remain below-average for the next six months and will likely be just a few inches above the record levels.

Map of Lake Michigan drainage basin. Note how little of it extends into Illinois. Map from the Michigan Sea Grant at http://www.miseagrant.umich.edu/explore/about-the-great-lakes/lake-michigan/.
Map of Lake Michigan drainage basin. Note how little of it extends into Illinois. Map from the Michigan Sea Grant at http://www.miseagrant.umich.edu/explore/about-the-great-lakes/lake-michigan/.
Map of precipitation across the Midwest. Heavy rains fell across northern Illinois, over Lake Michigan, and into the state of Michigan. Map by the Midwestern Regional Climate Center.
Map of precipitation across the Midwest. Heavy rains fell across northern Illinois, over Lake Michigan, and into the state of Michigan. Map by the Midwestern Regional Climate Center.
Great Lakes Water Levels. US Army Corps of Engineers: www.lre.usace.army.mil. Click to enlarge.
Great Lakes Water Levels. US Army Corps of Engineers: http://www.lre.usace.army.mil. Click to enlarge.

New Climate Prediction Center Outlooks

On February 20, the NWS Climate Prediction Center released their new outlooks for March and beyond. Below are the maps for March, spring (March to May), and summer (June to August).

The overall theme for Illinois is an increased chance of above-average temperatures through August. We have an increased chance of above-average precipitation in the March-May period, followed by equal chances in the June-August period. If it pans out, above-average precipitation for this spring should help with low water levels on both the Great Lakes and Mississippi River as well as alleviate drought concerns in northern Illinois.

If you are wondering when was the last time we had a spring that was both warmer and wetter than average, you do not have to look very far. The springs of 2004, 2006, 2009, 2010, and 2011 all qualified as having both above average on precipitation and temperature. In fact, our spring temperatures in Illinois have been at or above average in all but 2 years since 1998 (last figure).

The Climate Prediction Center outlook for March and March-May. NOAA.
The Climate Prediction Center outlook for March and March-May. NOAA.
Climate Prediction Center outlook for summer (June-August).
Climate Prediction Center temperature outlook for summer (June-August).
Climate Prediction Center precipitation outlook for summer (June-August).
Climate Prediction Center precipitation outlook for summer (June-August).
Spring Temperatures in Illinois since 1895. Source: http://www.southernclimate.org/products/trends.php
Spring Temperatures in Illinois since 1895. The green dots are the spring temperatures each year. The shaded curve represents a 5-year running average with extended periods of cool temperatures shaded in blue and extended periods of warm temperatures shaded in red. Source: http://www.southernclimate.org/products/trends.php

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.