Today is the 35th anniversary of the sinking of the Great Lakes ore carrier, the Edmund Fitzgerald. The shipped was sunk by “The Witch of November”, a strong Lake Superior storm that often occurs around the same time each year. Given the anniversary and recent storm that set several all-time low pressure records, I thought I’d collect summaries of some of the most significant storms.
A frequent warning from people who see a quickly warming world is that the extra heat means extra water vapor, which provides energy for stronger storms. This post won’t really challenge that, I’d need a more complete records and various statistical methods. Look at this post more as weather lore than climate analysis. The recent storm may fit the “stronger storm” hypothesis, but some of the storms from decades ago were not taken lightly!
Many of these storms combine three elements. First, a Pacific storm moves into the northwest and continues just south of the Canadian border. Between mid-autumn and mid-winter, small systems can feed warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico north and cold Canadian air south. When the Pacific storm moves into this environment, it can wrap both air masses together and “bomb out” into a major storm. Little glitches in the timing can have a big effect on the final strength, which is a good reason to be suspicious about looking for a global warming signal in the historical record. Too many things have to line up just right for a big storm
I thought I could compile this list with just storms between the Fitzgerald storm and the recent one, but it quickly became clear that some older storms were worse and caused greater damage. Of course, weather prediction was not as good as it is now, and some of these storm triggered significant improvements in getting out weather warnings. The human and shipping impacts I note below are poor items for historical comparison. Also, some of my data sources are unclear or categorize ship impacts differently.
The links below have the real meat about the storms. I’ve included a quote from the last link for each storm. Some of them would be difficult events to handle today.
1913 November: “Freshwater Fury” 968.5 mb = 28.59″, 19 ships sunk, 250 deaths
“No lake master can recall in all his experience a storm of such unprecedented violence with such rapid changes in the direction of the wind and its gusts of such fearful speed! Storms ordinarily of that velocity do not last over four or five hours, but this storm raged for sixteen hours continuously at an average velocity of sixty miles per hour, with frequent spurts of seventy and over.
Obviously, with a wind of such long duration, the seas that were made were such that the lakes are not ordinarily acquainted with. The testimony of masters is that the waves were at least 35 feet high and followed each other in quick succession, three waves ordinarily coming one right after the other.
1940 November 11: “Armistice Day” 967 mb = 28.55″, 5 ships, 150 deaths
The summer and early autumn in 1940 were warm, as was the morning of the 11th. Many people were out duck hunting in the mild weather and were unprepared for the changes about to move in. By the end of the day wind made it dangerous for the hunters to move by canoe, some made it out the next day over thin ice, others died before then. Up to 27″ of snow fell in Minnesota.
The storm brought 49 deaths in Minnesota. It sank 5 ships and killed 66 on Lake Michigan. The west coast storm associated with this caused the collapse of “Galloping Gertie,” the bridge over the Tacoma Narrows that had been completed earlier in the year.
1975 January 11 “Great Storm of 1975″ Canada: 961 mb = 28.38″, Duluth MN: 967 mb = 28.55” 45 deaths in the Midwest
Associated with this storm was a major tornado outbreak in southern states (yes, in January). In Sioux Falls, South Dakota it was called the biggest blizzard of the century. In Brainerd MN it was was compared to the Armistice Day storm and the ambulance service used a snowmobile with an enclosed trailer.
1975 Nov 10 “Edmund Fitzgerald” 976 mb = 28.83″ 29 deaths
This, of course, is the storm that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald, a great lakes ore freighter. These ships are narrow to fit the locks between the lakes and very long, the Fitzgerald was 729 ft (222 m) and the largest on the lakes for most of its life. Exactly why the Fitzgerald went down is not certain, but waves fore and aft may have let the middle buckle, as the ship is in two pieces on the lake floor. Whatever happened was so quick that there was no distress call. Their last communication with another ship nearby said they were holding their own.
The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
and a wave broke over the railing.
And ev’ry man knew, as the captain did too
’twas the witch of November come stealin’.
The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
when the Gales of November came slashin’.
When afternoon came it was freezin’ rain
in the face of a hurricane west wind.
1978 Jan 26 “Great Blizzard of ’78” Cleveland: 958 mb = 28.28″, Canada: 950 mb = 28.05″
By some accounts, the entire winter of 77-78 was the worse since records began in the early 1800s, but this storm was by far the most severe of the 18 major storms. This affected an area further east than most of the storms mentioned here. Cleveland set its all time low air pressure, and most reports come from Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio.
This storm brought rain to the east coast which melted some of the record breaking snowfall from a storm a couple weeks earlier, and before New England’s “Blizzard of ’78.” When people talk of the storms of the late 1970s, this is one of the winters they’re talking about.
While there are several contenders for the worst blizzard ever to hit the Great Lakes in relatively modern times (since 1870 when records began in Detroit), the immense and intense Blizzard of January 26-27th 1978 must rank at or near the top along with the Great White Hurricane of 1913 with its similar track and powerfulness.
1998 Nov 10-12 “Anniversary Storm” 963 mb = 28.43″
Duluth set records for lowest air pressure, precipitation, and snowfall.
Finding web pages about this is a bit of a challenge. Several mention it in passing while their main thrust is on the 1975 Edmund Fitzgerald storm 13 years before. January is 1998 featured the Great Ice Storm of ’98 which kept me busy through the spring chipping downed wood. In Canada that storm took out a line of high tension towers and disrupted power distribution for months.
The wisc.edu link has a nice animation of satellite photos of the this storm – and links to a track page that notes “uncanny similarity” to the 1975 storm.
No quote, but the latter URL has a nice satellite image animation of the 1998 storm.
2010 Oct 26 “Chiclone” 954.9 mb = 28.20″
Strongest non-tropical storm on record in the non-coastal continental United States (whew!)
[This is a quote from a Duluth MN NWS statement originally issued in all capital letters.] An unusually intense low affected the state of Minnesota. At 513 PM CDT…the automated weather observing system at Bigfork Minnesota recorded a 954.96 millibar /28.20 inches/ pressure. This breaks the all time Minnesota state record for the lowest observed pressure.
The previous record was 962.6 mb set on November 10 1998 at Albert Lea and Austin in southern Minnesota. The record was initially broken shortly after 10 AM as the low passed by Aitkin Minnesota. However…the low continued to intensify into the afternoon.
A final note.
Trying to pull out a consistent history from widely disparate records for this has been a time consuming exercise. Accounts of one storm differ with the teller. One story might refer to the lowest pressure in the state, another mig refer to the lowest pressure in the US or Canada, some might even refer to the pressure described on a synoptic map but not recorded on a barometer.
Jeff Masters reported this list of the six lowest pressures recorded in the Great Lakes area:
1. Yesterday’s October 26, 2010 Superstorm (955 mb/28.20″)
2. Great Ohio Blizzard January 26, 1978 (958 mb/28.28″)
3. Armistice Day Storm November 11, 1940 (967 mb/28.55″)
4. November 10, 1998 storm (967 mb/28.55″)
5. White Hurricane of November 7 – 9, 1913 (968 mb/28.60″)
6. Edmund Fitzgerald Storm of November 10, 1975 (980 mb/28.95″)
However, he referred to a post from the Chicago NWS office from during the storm. Its list is:
Rank Event Date Minimum central pressure 1. Great Ohio Blizzard Jan 26, 1978 950 HPA / 28.05 inches 2. Current event Oct 26-27, 2010 962 HPA / 28.41 inches * 3. Armistice Day Storm Nov 11, 1940 967 HPA / 28.55 inches Anniversary Storm Nov 10, 1998 967 HPA / 28.55 inches 4. Cyclone of 1913 Nov 7-9, 1913 968 HPA / 28.60 inches (aka White Hurricane) 5. Edmund Fitzgerald Storm Nov 10, 1975 980 HPA / 28.95 inches * current lowest minimum central pressure
Note how Masters uses an updated pressure reference for this year’s storm, which is fine, but he replaced the Canadian pressure in the 1978 storm with the Cleveland pressure thereby knocking 1978 into second place.
Perhaps the moral of the story is that Americans can wring their hands over storms getting worse, and Canadians can maintain their focus on melting permafrost and hungry Polar Bears.
I’ll just settle for using this as confirmation that it’s tough finding the “right” numbers.