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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Impact of the February 1-2 Storm on Highways

The impact of the February 1-2, 2011, storm on highways in Illinois was significant. Using snowfall data and Illinois DOT highway data, our GIS specialist Zoe Zaloudek was able to calculate the number of miles of interstate, US highways, and state roads covered by selected amounts of snow.

Below is the resulting map showing both the roads and significant snowfall. A table at the bottom of the map shows the number of miles affected by 6, 8 and 12 inches or more of snow. The impacts were felt all the way from Quincy to Chicago. We chose a starting point of 6 inches as the threshold for significant disruption of traffic and higher removal cost, based on earlier studies in Illinois.

For example, about 1,132 miles of interstate roads in Illinois received 12 inches or more of snow. Including 1,762 miles of US highways and 4,099 miles of state roads, it adds up to an incredible 6,993 miles of roads with a foot or more of snow to plow.

These estimates do not include the thousands of miles of county roads as well as city streets and alleys in the Chicago metropolitan area and elsewhere. However, we did not have a complete database of those road systems. Also roads covered by less than 6 inches of snow were treated as well for additional costs.

February blizzard affect roadways
The number of miles of Illinois roadways affected by selected amounts of snowfall during the February 1-2, 2011, winter storm.

Snowfall Totals from around Illinois

The winter storm of February 1-2, 2011, will be remembered by many in northern and central Illinois. The National Weather Service (NWS) did an excellent job of producing forecasts and warnings on this storm. In the aftermath, we have began collecting the snowfall measurements from a variety of networks. Rather than list all the data here, I have provided some links to data sources.

Snowfall totals and some maps provided by NWS offices are available here:

Here is a preliminary look at snowfall totals across the Midwest. Snowfall amounts in excess of 12 inches extend from Oklahoma, into Missouri, the northern half of Illinois, and on into northern Indiana and southern Michigan.

Experimental Hour Snowfall Analysis
Preliminary snowfall totals map for the February 1-2, 2011 storm (NWS image).

And zooming in on northern Illinois.

Snowfall totals for the February 1-2, 2011, event in northern IL (NWS image).

Tornadoes Strike Illinois in November

Severe weather, including   four tornado reports, struck northern Illinois on November 23, 2010. According to NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center:

  • a tornado was spotted 4 miles east of Loves Park (Boone County); power lines down and debris were reported;
  • a second tornado report from 3 miles east of Loves Park (probably the same tornado) caused 3 injuries, nearly destroyed one business, and damaged other homes and a garage;
  • a tornado was spotted on the ground 2 miles northwest of Harvard (McHenry County); no damage was reported;
  • a tornado was spotted in McHenry County, right on the Illinois-Wisconsin line, 5 miles southeast of Walworth WI; apparently all the damage occurred in Wisconsin.

Besides tornadoes, high winds caused extensive damage including tree limbs and power lines down, damage to buildings, and trucks blown over. The link to the full report is here.

The NWS offices at Davenport IA and Chicago IL are conducting damage surveys. Results will be posted here:

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.