35 years ago: The Witch of November Come Stealin

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.

Edmund Fitzgerald

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.

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Jacob Neilson
November 10, 2010 8:29 am

Fond memories of listening to Gordon Lightfoot back in University days. I will have to search out my old casette tape!

November 10, 2010 8:30 am

About ‘ole Jeff Masters…. While I have a great deal of respect for his ability to forecast the weather a few days out, and his hurricane forecasting skills; he is a firm believer in evil mankinds affect on this planets climate. On this, he and I digress.

November 10, 2010 8:34 am

This post makes me feel better about living in California. Thanks Anthony, I needed that.

November 10, 2010 8:42 am

If a boat goes slower than a wave, it can get pushed like a surfboard, and if the front of the boat starts veering to the side and plowing it can put lots of stress on the middle of the boat, especially if the boat is very low in the water like the Fitzgerald was (it was taking on water and having trouble pumping it overboard). Seems like long relatively thin boats like oreboats are particularly susceptible to this.
I had a close call on Superior last month under this exact situation and almost flipped my little underpowered boat. Got me thinking that I had no idea what mechanisms actually sinks boats (other than holes) so how could I be prepared to stop it from happening.

November 10, 2010 8:46 am

Fascinating. I spent September & October of 1970 working as a deckhand on a Great Lakes ore boat called the William A. Reiss. Seeing the lakes from that perspective was a great experience. The most memorable day of the time spent on that boat was a day that there was a terrific storm. I was on deck watch the night before and it was really raging. Probably not as bad as some of the “super” storms mentioned in the articlc, but to a young, stupid, 20 year old, it was the neatest thing I ever did. The boat was something like 700 feet long and was being tossed around like a matchstick. The waves were crashing -literally crashing- with loud booming sounds every time they hit that big hunk of metal. They were also cold- Lake Superior is very cold water even in the summer, but in October? When I saw the scene where Lt. Dan confronts God during the hurricane in “Forest Gump”, that night was pretty much the same for me. I remember trying to walk along the deck forward from the after cabins and as my foot went out to step down, the force of the waves would raise the ship up so fast that it would slap the bottom of my boot, or if the bow was into a trough, it would literally throw me forward as if running downhill. I was seasick and upchucking and having one of the best times of my life. That picture of the Edmund Fitzgerald really brings back a lot of memories, including a rendition of Gordon Lightfoot’s song about it by the jukebox in my memory. Ahh, youth. If I only knew then what I know now 🙂

foley hund
November 10, 2010 8:49 am

Columbus Day Storm, 1962, an extratropical storm, posted 960 hpa. Slammed into the NW. “The peak winds were felt as the storm passed close by on October 12. At Oregon’s Cape Blanco, an anemometer that lost one of its cups registered wind gusts in excess of 145 mph (233 km/h); some reports put the peak velocity at 179 mph (288 km/h).
At the Mount Hebo Air Force Station in the Oregon Coast Range, the anemometer pegged at its maximum 130 mph (209 km/h) for long periods—likely at the level of a Category 4 hurricane; damage to the radar domes suggested wind gusts to at least 170 mph (270 km/h). Dome tiles were thrown down the mountainside; the 200 lb (45 kg) chunks tore through entire trees.
At the Naselle Radar Station in the Willapa Hills of southwest Washington, a wind gust of 160 mph (257 km/h) was observed.” http://www.thefullwiki.org/Columbus_Day_Storm_of_1962

November 10, 2010 8:55 am

That storm in October was a doozy. I’m in northern MN and we had a pressure of 960mb here not all that far from the low center. We escaped the worst of the storm and mostly just had a wind driven, cold, miserable rain. Areas just to our west and east got up to 9 inches of snow. We got a trace. It’s no surprise that such intense storms all seem to occur during La Niña years in Minnesota. I remember the “twin” storms of 1998 that brought two blizzards in a week in early/mid November. We had an excellent start to the ski season that year… only to be wiped away by record warmth over Thanksgiving into early December. Then there was the fluke of 1999/2000.. the La Niña that couldn’t. It still bothers me to this day when people will call for a warm winter thanks to La Niña in Minnesota… and it’s all because of two outliers: 1998/99 and 1999/00. Anyway, thanks for the post. The info is very interesting and shows that Lake Superior is nothing to shake a stick at. While the waves might be bigger in the Atlantic, the frigid waters of Gitchigummi will suck the life out of you and send you plummeting to her icy caverns below before you know what hit you.

Douglas DC
November 10, 2010 8:57 am

Worked with an old Coastie Chief who was an Aircrewman on an Great Lakes HH-3
Recsue Chopper. He had stories about 1975. Including the Edmund Fitzgerald.
As an aside it was Nov. 1975 I was a green Co-Pilot on a Commuter Airline,
I and 10 others became passengers (two Pilots, btw,) as we accumulated ice and
the de-icers, did not keep ahead of the icing. We were over that great graveyard of
lost Aircrew, the Cascades. We managed to fall-literally into the Yakima Valley.
We started in Seattle. The ice let go as we fell into lower entroute altitudes.
I didn’t fly with that Captain again….

November 10, 2010 8:57 am

There is a basic logical flaw in attributing storms or whatever “extreme events” to few tenths of degree higher temperature.
Daily temperature easily rises from morning to noon by 15°C. Has anyone registered immense increase of “extreme weather events” around lunch? And this is warming by 15°C within hours, not warming by 0.4 °C during 70 years (1945-2010, HadCRUT)!
Average daily temperature here rises up between January to July by 25°C. But “extreme events” do occur also in winter as in summer; so absolute temperature has nothing with it (except specific stuff like hurricane season or lightnings, not usual in winter). If the absolute temperature would be in direct relation with “extreme events”, all of them should have been occurring in the summer, and we would see increase only in the full summer, when average temperatures go by fraction of degree above previous records. But during the whole rest of the year, there is the same temperature as was in every year in previous centuries, and whatever happens then can not be related to warming; atmosphere does not care about anomalies against 1961-90 climatology, only about actual temperature, humidity, pressure systems etc.
Or lets assume the average annual temperature difference between 1985 and 2010 is +1°C in Northern hemisphere. It means, that average temperature in 4th week of November 2010 is the same as average temperature in 3rd week of November 1985 (it means, 30 years ago it was getting as cold one week sooner). If a powerful storm occurs in late November 2010, it can not be caused by “warming”, since the whole Northern hemisphere is of the same average temperature, as it was in 3rd November week in 1985. It is a logical nonsense.

November 10, 2010 9:10 am

If I am not mistaken, Gordon Lightfoot modified the original 1976 lyrics to “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” after the final investigation report was released some years later about the tragedy. But I cannot at the moment recall what the changes were. Perhaps someone here knows?

November 10, 2010 9:19 am

The southern England ‘Great Storm’ of 1987 recorded a lowest pressure of 953 mbar and max wind speed of 216 km/h (134 mph). The UK Met Office (famously) did not see it coming.

James Sexton
November 10, 2010 9:23 am

Man! You guys and your songs really take me back. Be sure to rings the bells if you can.

Eyes Wide Open
November 10, 2010 9:35 am

November 10, 2010 9:39 am

Thanks for that salutory reminder about the arbitary power of ole Ma nature and her sudden bouts of utterly vicious behaviour.
Brings to mind the sinking of the Wahine in broad daylight inside the heads of Wellington Harbour, New Zealand, on April 10, 1968, with the loss of only 51 lives. I say ‘only’ as the Wahine, a large and modern (for the time) Inter-Island ferry with a full compliment of passengers and vehicles traveling from the South Island was capsized by the ferocity of a sudden storm, the worst in the nation’s records at that time. Many of those who lost their lives were either drowned or smashed by surf onto the rocky foreshore of the harbour which services the nation’s capital.

Roy Spencer
November 10, 2010 9:49 am

I was there…at the NWS office in Sault Ste. Marie, when the report came in that the Fitzgerald had likely sunk. One of the guys on staff called Cleveland and yelled that the shipping company better start keeping track of the weather up there. Amazing wind that night.
The storm was well forecast in advance…at least by the numerical model. I remember the LFM (I think that was the model at the time) had forecast an intense low to form and cross Lake Superior, with anti-cyclonic curvature to the isobars just south of the low. I recall thinking, there is gonna be some big wind if this verifies.

Eric (skeptic)
November 10, 2010 9:58 am

I was wondering why the 28.05 was second place to the 28.20 storm. I guess Canada isn’t part of the U.S. after all.

November 10, 2010 9:59 am

Thanks Ric, nice overview. I was in western NY for the winter of ’77/’78; that was a winter to remember! There were several times throughout that winter where only snowmobiles could move. I was in middle school. My mother recalls that we only went to school 14 days between the beginning of December and end of February! In making that up we had to go a week past the 4th of July. As a kid it was a wonderful/terrible winter. ;o)

November 10, 2010 10:02 am

I stated before that my son sails the lakes and was out on a ship during the recent storm. He send me via his blackberry a photo of the ships wind gage showing 58 knots steady with 100 kts gusts on Lake Huron. Highest wind gusts at the Mackinac Bridge were 82 mph.

Douglas DC
November 10, 2010 10:27 am

Anyone notice the PDO,ENSO, Etc. at those dates, I think it would make for an interesting comparison.
The Old Man North Pacific can brood in his own “Ice Water Mansion”…

pablo an ex pat
November 10, 2010 10:29 am

I live in MN and the warmists have already claimed the storm of 10/26 and 27 as being indicative of global warming. No matter that it wasn’t all that unusual even in the modern era.
And yes, I am sure that the Warmists wouldn’t agree with that. If the La Nina driven winter forecast for the upper Midwest proves true, colder than usual with more precip that will be a weather event won’t it ?
When the global temps drop like a rock next year – that will be weather again, or Volcanoes or Chinese aerosol emmissions…………..
When the NH Summer Sea Ice extent continues its rebound in 2011 then is that weather too ? And if it is then what was the cause of the decline ? Weather ? Oh of course not that was climate.

November 10, 2010 10:29 am

I saw a simulation on a Science program (that was surprisingly free of “message”) of the type of wave combination that could have snapped an ore-carrier like a twig. It seems to me that the real scientists are characterizing weather phenomena, to increase our understanding of their behavior to possibly save lives, rather then, to collect talking points to scare people into becoming slaves to the state. Why don’t we ever read press releases about the work of the researchers who are unraveling the knotty mechanisms behind these awesome acts of nature?

November 10, 2010 10:30 am

Wow, talk about interesting timing. A friend of mine just posted on Facebook that he’s going to go see GL tonight in Visalia, a San Joaquin town just 35 some miles from my current base of operations Fresno. I had no idea that he was still touring… Hell, I had no idea he was still alive!!!
Of course, he had no idea I am still alive either, so we’re even! Anyway, maybe I’ll have to go see him and prove that I am!!! 🙂

Eyes Wide Open
November 10, 2010 10:37 am

Paul H.:
In summary the change modified the line “”At 7 p.m. a main hatchway caved in, He said, “Fellas, it’s been good to know ya.'” to “At 7 p.m., it grew dark, it was then he said, ‘Fellas it’s been good to know ya.””
Why? The article states “The move comes after a Canadian documentary claims to have proven the crew of the ship, the Edmund Fitzgerald, was not responsible for the disaster.
The yap films documentary, simply called Edmund Fitzgerald and airing on the premiere episode of Dive Detectives on the History Channel on March 31, concludes there is little evidence that failure to secure the ship’s hatches caused the sinking and that it was a rogue wave instead. ”
Lightfoot states: “I can’t use the hatch cover line anymore. And the whole verse was really conjecture right from start to finish anyway. It’s the only verse in the whole song where I give myself complete poetic licence.”
“It absolves some of the deckhands who were in charge of those hatch covers because I’ve been in touch with these people for years,” he said. “The mother and the daughter of two of the deck guys who would have been in charge of that have always cringed every time they’ve heard the line. And they will be very pleased. And they know about it and they’re very happy about it.”
Obviously a thoughtful man but I never got a sense anyway that that line in the song was placing any blame on anyone!

November 10, 2010 10:50 am

I just went to watch Gordon Lightfoot live Monday night in Boise. Even in his 70’s he still puts on a good show.

John Marincic
November 10, 2010 10:57 am

The Great Blizzard of 78 dumped so much snow between Port Colborne and Welland (Southern Ontario – near Buffalo) that people had to actually dig tunnels to get out of their houses as snow was piled up to the roofs. Snowmobiles were the only way to get around for days. I believe the military had to help in bringing food to people snowed into their homes. There was an actual case of a car parked on top of a school bus on the major roadway as people left their vehicles because of the vicious blizzard conditions (could not see in front of the car). I don’t know what the official snow depth was for the area but because of the wind snow drifts were up to the tops of telephone poles.

November 10, 2010 11:03 am

We have to keep this sort of memory going. Not wishing to wax lyrical about conspiracy theories, but I am convinced that the UK Met Office, in its weather reports, are forecasting all sorts of “extreme” events – all due to climate disruption, natch – and then conveniently not reporting on the actuality the next day. The number of times recently I have gone out in the morning armed with waterproofs, hat, unbrella etc anticipating the forecasted downpour and then not needed anything at all, the sun has shone instead.
But every time there is a flood/heavy rain/snow/whatever and it is then reported as evidence of climate disruption, we must be able to negate that with evidence from previous years, as far back as possible. I went to a climate change seminar recently (to keep an eye on what sort of rubbish is spouted by the believers) and a speaker produced a slide showing a series of pictures of a warehouse by the side of a river in Sheffield (the seminar was in the south west!) which had NEVER flooded before apparently (and that made me want to ask why – was it clogged up with abandoned supermarket trollies?) and the stupid warehouse owner had made no emergency provision for an extreme flooding event. Each slide the water progressing rapidly across the car park outside the warehouse until it entered the warehouse so that, silly, silly person, his business was completely disrupted for weeks, nay months, afterwards. And it was all because of climate disruption.
I stayed for the morning and had to leave by lunchtime. I couldn’t stomach any more. But there were many people there with similar views as myself which was reassuring.

Coach Springer
November 10, 2010 11:26 am

Nature is awesome and greater than the science that tries to capture it.
There were reports of surfing 20-footers in Michigan this October. This AGW thing could be good for the MI surfing industry. Not that I’m going to “get in on the ground floor” of this movement with my own money.
Along with earlier springs and later winters, the November Witch now comes in October. That pretty much cinches it, scientifically speaking. Not.

November 10, 2010 12:11 pm

OT? Interesting article:

Brian D
November 10, 2010 12:29 pm

As a North Shore resident of Lake Superior, that was definitely a wind maker back in Oct. Odd direction for such strong winds though. With the storm centered to the W, then NW of me, we had very strong SW winds which really buffeted the shore at an odd angle. Normally we get very strong winds from the E or the NW from such systems. They did start out from the E, but weren’t as strong until they went SW. Trees down all over with roofs being stripped of shingles along the shoreline. 2 to 3 inches of rain with up to 7 in of snow in the hills. A very dry Oct turned very wet in just a short couple days. We had local flooding issues as well.
My own forecasting showing some pretty wild weather between Thanksgiving, and Christmas this year. Lots of rain, snow, and wind for the Upper Midwest.
Deer hunters here in MN sure are loving the mild weather. Was like this last year as well. Got 2 hanging in the garage right now that need to be cut up. Good stuff!

hotrod ( Larry L )
November 10, 2010 12:34 pm

The severe winter of 77/78 played a large part in the countries economic problems in the late 70’s and early 80’s. It basically shut down a large part of the country for an extended period of time, and the shipping delays and extra costs associated with it had major impacts on private citizens, companies and governments. It was the straw that broke the camels back in some cases for people that were just hanging on financially.
U.S. inflation rate had been above 6% since early in the year of 1977. In September of 1978 it went over 8% and finally broke through the psychological barrier of 9% after the Ohio blizzard. There was a major scramble for coal and heating oil that winter as I recall, and it helped push inflation up due to the panic demand for heating energy. As a result inflation spiked sharply upwards for the next few months, going into the double digits in 1979.
Although there were plenty of other contributing factors, the bitter cold weather and strangled transportation due to blizzards and heavy snow was the final blow for many companies and individuals who were just barely hanging on financially.
I remember news stores about depleted coal stock piles at power stations and how many days of coal they had on hand if they did not get any other shipments.
This was due both to the weather and to a 110-day national coal strike in the United States December 6, 1977 – March 19, 1978.

Billy Liar
November 10, 2010 1:03 pm

scott says:
November 10, 2010 at 8:42 am
Scott, if you haven’t already, please read this:

Jabba the Cat
November 10, 2010 1:09 pm

Live version here

November 10, 2010 1:13 pm

Eyes Wide Open:
‘Obviously a thoughtful man but I never got a sense anyway that that line in the song was placing any blame on anyone!’
Agreed, my view is that he was telling us how puny and powerless humans are against the power of nature. There are some environmentalists and warmist scientists who should listen to that song and find some humility, especially the current crop of geo-engineers.
scott: ‘Seems like long relatively thin boats like oreboats are particularly susceptible to this. …. Got me thinking that I had no idea what mechanisms actually sinks boats (other than holes) so how could I be prepared to stop it from happening.’
And this got me wondering about how the typical lean Viking warship, long and fairly narrow, was designed to be flexible and resilient in conditions just like this. Their normal trading ships were somewhat tubbier and higher sided but still used very similar construction methods. Obviously, they were much smaller and built of wood (a benefit in this purpose and a source of the flexibility) but those Scandinavians had clearly learned by bitter experience what worked best in the twisting seas scott mentions. Did the loss of ships like the Edmund Fitzgerald contribute to any changes in fundamental design?

a jones
November 10, 2010 1:36 pm

In general in storm conditions merchant vessels sink from one of three causes:
The hatchcovers give way and the ship floods.
The righting lever proves inadequate so the ship capsizes: often prompted by a shift in the cargo.
The hull breaks up almost always in torsion rather than hog or sag.
Bulk carriers are at greater risk than other designs and although little reported or noticed by the MSM the industry loses about one a week. It is a scandal in which the yards blame the owners for cutting costs the owners blame the cutthroat market, and so on but in the end both cargo and bottom are insured so the only losers are the families of the poor sailormen who are lost.
I suspect the Edmund Fitzgerald’s unusual design would have made her particularly vulnerable in very heavy seas: for which, bearing in mind her intended use, she may not have been designed.
Kindest Regards

Dave Wendt
November 10, 2010 1:46 pm

My grandfather and two of my uncles were out on the Mississippi for the “Armistice Day” storm. They made it to safety when many did not, mostly I suspect because my grandfather, who trapped and fished commercially on the river for more than fifty years, was the wiliest and most knowledgeable river hand I or any of the people that knew him ever met. If you were on the river with him and he got that look and said it’s time to head in, everybody got right to stowing away gear, no matter how benevolent the conditions appeared at the moment.
In subsequent years when the conversation turned to the latest attempts of Minnesota weather to erase us all from the face of the Earth, the benchmark by which they were measured was always “Armistice Day” and something about the look around their eyes told you that this was not just the usual “you young folks don’t no what tough is” hyperbole.
Minnesota folks have a lot of respect for the weather. Mostly because around here, for most of the year, it is capable of doing something that will kill you if you’re not paying attention. My Minnesota heritage is probably why I find the climate alarmists’ doomsaying to be much less than compelling. If changing weather and climate really do pose an existential threat to humanity and the world, Minnesota would have turned into a ghost town years ago.

hotrod ( Larry L )
November 10, 2010 1:59 pm

The hull breaks up almost always in torsion rather than hog or sag.

Does that imply that long super tankers and similar ships, which are long compared to wave lengths in a severe storm, should in addition to the normal box like right angle bulkhead/rib and deck construction, include diagonal ribs running around the hull designed to resist torsion loads?

Ed Snack
November 10, 2010 2:11 pm

Alexander K, one should mention that the Wahine was not just ” capsized by the ferocity of a sudden storm”, but rather had suffered significant damage from grounding on Barrett’s Reef on the way into Wellington Harbour (a longer story, but basically she was of a design that only really maneuvered well under high power settings, and the captain had for some reason reduced speed considerably on the approach to the harbour, and the ship was pushed sideways by a combination of wind and waves towards the reef and didn’t respond in time because of the reduced speed). With the damage to the hull, she was unable to keep the water levels down and that started to affect power until all power was lost. Then as the water continued to flood in, she lost stability as ships do in such circumstances, and she went over.
FWIW, the winds in the Wahine storm peaked at over 200 km/h, with an estimated central pressure around 964 HPa. It was a particular type of storm, where a tropical cyclone (Hurricane), re-intensified in the extra-tropics to become a damaging storm of hurricane proportions. Waves of over 12 metres, and a storm surge of 0.7 metres were experienced. Not unique, but caused the greatest loss of life.

Dan J
November 10, 2010 2:43 pm

@ a jones,
You are absolutely right about the Edmund Fitzgerald and other merchant ships.
One additional factor here is that a cargo of iron ore will absorb some water, but once it gets too wet it will start to behave like a very heavy liquid. The free surface effect of iron ore sloshing around can capsize or sink any ship. Happened a few years ago on the northern Baltic Sea, too.

Phil M2.
November 10, 2010 2:58 pm

interessante, ma i don’ la t parla italiano.
pozzo – babelfish fatto

November 10, 2010 3:15 pm

Eric (skeptic) says:
November 10, 2010 at 9:58 am
I was wondering why the 28.05 was second place to the 28.20 storm. I guess Canada isn’t part of the U.S. after all.
The U.S. is like Sydney, if it hasn’t happened there. it hasn’t happened anywhere.

Phil M2.
November 10, 2010 3:15 pm

..Eyes Wide Open says:
The strange thing is that if I had listened to this song 35 years ago (maybe I did) I would have thought, what is this crap. Now I find myself actually enjoying the song and have played it twice already. Middle/Old age can have a good side. And no, I’m not trying to detract from the tragedy and I’m even typing this from on-board my boat. Hatches caving in is not the same as hatches left open, ask any sailor.

Bob Pearson
November 10, 2010 3:40 pm

I was working at a ski resort in upper lower Michigan and remember the storm of 78. I saved the isobar reading from an ink barometer that showed a ‘north american low’. I remember going in to work from the employees quarters to the closest lodge (maybe a quarter mile) and had to struggle on my hands and knees for about 40 minutes to make it to work. Glad I started early to get in at midnight.
As a student at Northwestern Michigan College I was also fortunate enough to attend GL concert at our school where he donated his performance fee to the NMC Maritime Academy that had a graduate on the Fitzgerald. Great memories.

November 10, 2010 4:01 pm

I lived in Dagenham near London, during the 1987 storm. Sad to say, I slept through it, but the aftermath next day was unbelievable.
My house was one of only ten in the estate that I lived in that escaped with the roof tiles still intact. I was working beside Hyde Park at the time, and I’ll never forget the amount of trees that had been uprooted, some of them 200 years old. Very sad, but awesome.

Ian Cooper
November 10, 2010 4:13 pm

Alexander K mentioned the “Wahine Storm,” also called Cyclone Giselle, and Ed Snack referred to it as the worst storm to hit New Zealand in the 20th century, but that latter title belongs to an earlier, un-named cyclone of feb 2-3 1936.
The on-line Te Ara Encyclopedia ( http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/weather/4 ) mentions some of the following details about this great storm.
“Worst storm of the 20th century
The cyclone of February 1936 was probably the most destructive storm to hit New Zealand in the 20th century. The depression that crossed the North Island on the second and third of February 1936 brought widespread heavy rain, causing every major river in the North Island to flood. The Mangakāhia River in Northland rose by 19 metres.
Two people died of hypothermia in the Tararua Range north of Wellington where, at the height of the storm, trees were uprooted from ridges and thrown into valleys. In Auckland 40 boats were sunk or driven ashore in the Waitematā Harbour, and several more sank in the Manukau Harbour.
Disaster was narrowly averted when the interisland ferry Rangatira steamed onto rocks on Wellington’s south coast. After being stuck fast for 20 minutes, the Rangatira was able to reverse off, then turn and back slowly up the harbour.”
My home town of Palmerston North bore the brunt of this storm. One of those who perished of hypothermia was from here. Northern Hemisphere readers need to remember that February is the only month of the year that snow doesn’t appear on the Tararua Ranges (ave height is 5,000 ft). There are still river valleys in those mountains where you can find log dam remnants from that storm now!
Since records began here in June 1928, February 1936 was the wettest February with just under 200mm until the ‘month of storms’ came along to take out supreme first place with 303mm, and that was Feb 2004!

David Ball
November 10, 2010 4:13 pm

Roy Spencer says:
November 10, 2010 at 9:49 am
Dave Wendt says:
November 10, 2010 at 1:46 pm
Excellent posts gentleman !!

a jones
November 10, 2010 4:33 pm

hotrod ( Larry L ) says:
November 10, 2010 at 1:59 pm
Yes. Forms of geodetic/geodesic hull construction have been known in their modern form for at least 300 years and make for an immensely strong hull but they are expensive to build. The pressure on cost being what it is merchant ships are generally built to the just good enough standard. And loaded to it too, forget the Plimsoll line, the industry has steadily pressed for and got increased load limits over the last hundred years.
This makes such ships marginal in adverse conditions. And nothing sinks faster than a bulk carrier loaded with heavy ore whereas a tanker full of oil can float in pieces for a considerable time.
Thus the naval architects will avoid raising the metacentric height, which improves the effect of the righting lever, above the bare minimum for stability because this requires a considerable increase in structural strength and thus steel and thus cost.
For the same reason diagonal bracing is disliked because it adds to the build cost: the preferred solution is to increase the size of the longerons along the bottom of the hull to resist the torsional load.
The importance of keeping constant torsional rigidity along the length of very fine, long and thin, hulls has been known for over a hundred years because otherwise the two ends of the hull may oscillate at different frequencies causing massive stresses to build up between them at the effective point where they meet: which is where the hull fails.
An example of this was MV Kowloon Bridge which broke in two about 25 years ago at exactly the point where the builders, Swan Hunter, had, for reasons of cost and difficulty in construction had replaced the originally intended full length longerons by cutting them off short at the bridge and substituting a complex framework aft.
She was near sister of the MV Derbyshire lost a few years earlier and after this hull failure everybody assumed that the loss of MV Derbyshire was due to the same fault but further enquiry showed it not to be so. In fact MV Derbyshire had been built to the original specification and did not break up in torsion, rather she foundered due to a progressive failure of the forward hatch covers.
It is not unusual for a hull to break in two as the vessel founders because the stresses on it as it sinks vastly exceed those it was designed for so it is quite usual to find the wreck in two parts.
Where vessels become very long compared to the wavelengths they encounter in heavy seas various other problems arise, chiefly that it is difficult to know what may happening at the bow from the bridge aft, in the early days of plateau size tankers, typically around 330,000 tonnes DWT and carrying about 250,000 tonnes of crude, going around the Cape the crew could be left in blissful ignorance of quite severe damage to the bow: because the hull’s motion no longer responds to the waves increasing wave impact. Likewise, unless below deck access is provided it is impossible for the crew to assess, check or rectify a failure forward: it is notable that MV Derbyshire did not have any such companionway. Today most designs provide for these problems.
I have not read the reports on the loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald, but given her degree of fineness I imagine her designers would have been well aware of the torsional problems. But again given her plying limits they might have underestimated the moments produced along the hull by a severe storm: not least because as an enclosed lake with quite a long fetch the seas would have been both short and steep.
Whatever did happen it is clear that the catastrophe overwhelmed the crew so quickly that they had no chance either to avert it or escape.
Kindest Regards.

November 10, 2010 5:00 pm
R. de Haan
November 10, 2010 5:11 pm

One thing is for sure, CO2 has nothing to do with it.

a jones
November 10, 2010 5:37 pm

Dan J says:
November 10, 2010 at 2:43 pm
Interesting. Thanks for that. I did not know that water take up was a problem with iron ore. With coal, especially of poor quality with much slack [dust], as is well known, it is extremely dangerous: for all the Dockies and their trimming: a lost art I imagine. Today most people can’t believe that bunker fires in coal fired steamships were quite common and nothing to to write home about.
As for a free surface a friend of mine, he is ex USN and was almost my counterpart, likes to take cruises on the insistence of his wife. Upon some such voyage in the Med the wife was taking a bath and discovered exactly what a free surface means when the vessel got hit by a sudden storm: as happens in the Med. I think she was about 30,000 tons: the gin palace that is not the wife.
Bit like the great lakes I imagine, when it really blows up by golly gosh it can be fierce.
Kindest Regards

Surfer Dave
November 10, 2010 11:06 pm

Thank you for an interesting article. Last year I stayed at the Wellesly Club in Wellington and in their foyer they have a barometer graph of “Wahini Day”. I took a photo of it. The Wahini was an inter-island ferry working between NZ’s North and South Islands and it came ashore during a deep low. Many lives were lost, this was back in April ’68. The plot showed the low touching 28″ (pre-metric in NZ back then, so just under 950mb!).

Gilbert K. Arnold
November 11, 2010 12:18 am

Those of you who like to inhabit old second hand book stores should attempt to obtain a copy of “The Long Ships Passing”, by Walter Havighurst. It has great historical and eyewitness accounts of the 1913 and 1940 storms on the Lakes. It’s long been out of print but is well worth the effort to find a copy. A very good read and will give you a flavor of the events.

Gilbert K. Arnold
November 11, 2010 12:35 am

I just noticed that Amazon.com has a re-issued version of the book in paperback. It was written in 1942 and the author was born in 1901 so he lived through most of the storms he describes.

November 11, 2010 3:39 am

Juraj V. [November 10, 2010 at 8:57 am] says:
“There is a basic logical flaw in attributing storms or whatever “extreme events” to few tenths of degree higher temperature.
Daily temperature easily rises from morning to noon by 15°C. Has anyone registered immense increase of “extreme weather events” around lunch? And this is warming by 15°C within hours, not warming by 0.4 °C during 70 years (1945-2010, HadCRUT)!”

Yes. My thoughts exactly. A clearer case of cognitive dissonance would be hard to make.
40 degrees F daytime-nightime delta is not unheard of in the burbs. I think I remember even wider swings in the Nevada desert. I imagine UHI would tend to smooth this variability in the cities where most of the quack pop-scientists congregate.

November 11, 2010 6:46 am

I grew up in Sault Ste Marie and remember the storm quite well. We were all in shock when learning that such a massive ship (for that era) had sunk in the storm. To this day, it’s the worst storm I’ve experienced.
If I recall properly, after the wind turned to the northwest, it created a storm surge that flooded the northwest pier at the Soo Locks, which are normally 8-10 feet or so above the water. What a storm…

November 11, 2010 9:30 am

Eyes Wide Open:
My God! What a great video. I have not even thought about this stuff for a long time and seeing that ship being tossed around with the waves coming over the decks, I could almost feel it again. And I’ve always loved that GL song.
Ric Werme: It’s a great picture. You will note that the Fitz is loaded. Your article got me to looking for photos of the William A. Reiss, the oreboat I was on, and there were pictures out there. One in particular showed the ship unloaded.
Re: the hatch speculation: “there is little evidence that failure to secure the ship’s hatches caused the sinking and that it was a rogue wave instead“.
Just my own two cents: whenever we left port after loading or unloading, we were put to work as deckhands getting the hatches secured and placing heavy canvas tarpaulins over the hatches and securing them in place with numerous built in clamps and ties that held the tarps in place in the high winds and rain that were fairly routine. Everything was on hold for the deck crew until the hatches were secure and the old hands explained that if rain or waves managed to get into the holds, it could sink us real quick. The old timers all knew of guys they had worked with that had gone down due to water getting into the holds. They also talked about when hauling a load of grain, that if it got wet, it would expand, like popcorn and pop the hull from the inside. So, unless the Fitz had some poor deck security going on, which I doubt, especially knowing they were headed into a storm, I don’t believe it was due to the fault of the crew not covering the hatches. Everyone on those boats knew their lives were on the line if those hatches weren’t securely covered.
a jones says: The righting lever proves inadequate so the ship capsizes: often prompted by a shift in the cargo.
The hull breaks up almost always in torsion rather than hog or sag.
Bulk carriers are at greater risk than other designs and although little reported or noticed by the MSM the industry loses about one a week.

I only worked on one of these things for two months- I don’t know what a “righting lever” is or “hog and sag”, although I think I have an idea, as I remember seeing that thing flexing as the storm waves tossed it around. You could see it and feel it.
But your statement that “the industry loses about one a week” baffles me. You are talking about worldwide, maybe? That’s 5200 ships the size of two and a quarter football fields or bigger every ten years! This is correct? If so, you’re right, I don’t remember ever seeing anything about it. Do you have a link to more info on this? When I first read it I thought you were just talking about Great Lakes boats, and it’s hard to imagine the MSM not picking up on such a spectacular number here in the U.S. But even on a worldwide basis, those are pretty amazing numbers.

Dave Springer
November 11, 2010 12:30 pm

Be thankful it’s a rare occurence. There’s nothing between the gulf coast of Texas and the arctic circle but barbed wire. People who live outside of tornado alley and away from where hurricanes make landfall have no idea what violent weather is really like.

November 11, 2010 6:32 pm

Thank you for posting this article Ric/Anthony. It was the the first time my wife looked at an entire WUWT thread with me. We enjoyed the video memories.
Weatherwise magazine did a pretty good cover story on this some (maybe 8) years ago.

a jones
November 11, 2010 7:48 pm

nofate says:
November 11, 2010 at 9:30 am
Umm not quite, the loss of fifty ships or so a year is five hundred a decade not as you suggest over five thousand.
The figures are of course worldwide but exclude the Great Lakes and other inland waterways. So to put the losses into context at the peak of the recent boom over eight thousand bulkers were in service, the slump means that at least half are either laid up or gone for scrap.
At its peak the bulker fleet accounted for close to 45% of the merchant marine by deadweight, DWT, but please remember bulkers vary enormously ins size from the giants which rival plateau tankers at around 330.000 tonnes DWT to the babies, sometimes called handysize, at around 10,000 DWT. The smaller ones tend to be what is now called combination, that is they are designed to handle both bulk and packaged cargo such as bales.
Despite its enormous size you don’t hear much about the industry partly because it lacks glamour unlike say IT, and by and large is not a stockmarket matter other than for the publically quoted conglomerates who are tiny in terms of the overall business: so the best you might read in the business pages is about them now and then. In fact the backbone of the industry is the private owner, most of whom only own one ship, and together account for over fifty percent of the fleet. Like as not when you see a ship liveried in some conglomerate house colours it is on long term charter from a private owner. The same goes for tankers, container ships and the like.
This does not make for good copy in the MSM or indeed the business press so most information is in the industry’s own papers and journals, and as far as TInternet goes most of this is behind paywalls so I cannot direct you to any particular open sites.
But broadly put following on from the growth of the oil trade in the 1950’s and it’s pursuit of economy of scale with ever larger tankers the bulk trade saw a similar expansion beginning in the 1980’s and losses started to mount so that the IMO and the certification societies became concerned and new regulations are either in or coming into force. They do not cover ships built earlier.
The very high loss rate of a few years back has abated somewhat and was partly due to the boom when older ships were put back into service with inexperienced crews. Nobody in the western media was interested in the losses because most of these ships were owned and crewed in the far east and employed there.
So I hope this clear.
Kindest Regards

November 11, 2010 11:00 pm

a jones: thanks for the explanation. Don’t know where that extra zero came from. Fat fingers, I guess 🙂

Mike Fox
November 12, 2010 12:13 am

What an absolutely fabulous post and thread! Thanks!

November 12, 2010 11:32 am

My wife grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, and she still remembers the storm that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald.
I remember several days without electricity or heat in the winter of ’78. Eventually, the family squeezed into the cab of our biggest tractor and relocated to our neighbour’s farm. They had an emergency generator for their pig barn and had run a line to the house. Also, a Weston Foods truck had got stuck in a ditch off the road near their house, so there was plenty to eat too!
The Great Ice Storm is fresh in my memory. I was in Ottawa. It wasn’t very cold, which was the main problem. The rain came down for hours on end and froze on the ground, coating everything with ice. I still remember the sky flashing blue as the nearby transformer station was arcing electricity, and limbs falling off of trees that could not bear the weight.

November 13, 2010 4:50 am

Hi Coops. I grew up in PN, too. Place gives me the creeps now, with that apalling windfarm above Turitea. John Cleese spent a night there once and announced that the town is designed to induce suicide. I enjoyed growing up there, though.

Brian H
November 13, 2010 6:09 am

On any kind of global energy accounting, warm = stormy is hogwah. The tropics – poles contrast is highest during cooling, leading to stronger flows. The ’70s storms, e.g., were at the trough of the cooling that was fueling The Ice Age Cometh stories, remember? And the LIA was extremely climactically violent.
Fear cooling. Bless warmth!

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