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Worst storm in Great Lakes history, 100 years ago this weekend

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Chris Scott
Chief Meteorologist

Thursday, November 7, 2013, 10:35 AM -

Over 250 lives lost.  At least 12 ships sunk.  Thirty other ships crippled.  The worst natural disaster in Great Lakes history.

The Great Storm of 1913, known as the ‘White Hurricane’, struck the Great Lakes 100 years ago this weekend.

The storm is being remembered along the Lake Huron shoreline with commemorate events taking place in such towns as Goderich.  It was truly an epic storm that is a benchmark in Great Lakes marine and meteorological history.

Ships lost in the Great Storm of 1913. Courtesy Dr. Greg Mann, National Weather Service Detroit.

Ships lost in the Great Storm of 1913. Courtesy Dr. Greg Mann, National Weather Service Detroit.

The Storm

November wind storms across the Great Lakes are common, but a storm with the intensity and impact of the White Hurricane is exceptionally rare.  The storm began forming on November 7, 1913, and reached its peak intensity on November 9 before it finally weakened a few days later on November 11.  It generated more than 50 cm of snow in cities such as Cleveland, winds to more than 130 km/h on the open waters of Lake Huron and waves taller than a two-storey house.  

Weather forecasting was still in its infancy 100 years ago, and the inability to accurately predict the intensity of this storm likely contributed to the high death toll on the lakes as at least a dozen ships were lost.

Locations of ships lost during the Great Storm of 1913. Most of the ships sunk were in Lake Huron. Courtesy Dr. Greg Mann, National Weather Service Detroit.

Locations of ships lost during the Great Storm of 1913. Most of the ships sunk were in Lake Huron. Courtesy Dr. Greg Mann, National Weather Service Detroit.

The White Hurricane began as an Alberta clipper-type storm system which merged with a moist Atlantic low pressure system. A large dip in the jet stream across the eastern U.S. allowed warm, moist air to be pulled northward while frigid arctic air plunged southward. The resulting contrast helped fuel a tremendous pressure gradient between the storm’s centre and a strong ridge of high pressure to the west. 

The intensity of the winds, blowing in the same direction over a long period of time, resulted in wave heights on Lake Huron which have not been rivaled.  

Initial forecasts before the storm struck predicted the Alberta clipper would move quickly across the Great Lakes.  It was anticipated that winds would be strong from the southwest ahead of the clipper and from the northwest behind it. As a result, ships positioned themselves against the more sheltered Michigan shoreline or in the southern part of Lake Huron from Goderich, Ont., to Point Edward. However, these positions proved to be the precarious and ultimately tragic as the powerful merged storm system brought fierce northerly winds which blew down the length of the lake, generating massive waves. The fact that three of the larger ships were found upside down indicated they had capsized, suggesting very steep waves as tall as a two-storey house.

Original hand-drawn sea-level pressure maps from Environment Canada’s Toronto office showing the initial Alberta clipper type storm beginning to merge with the Atlantic low. Courtesy Dr. Greg Mann, National Weather Service Detroit.

Original hand-drawn sea-level pressure maps from Environment Canada’s Toronto office showing the initial Alberta clipper type storm beginning to merge with the Atlantic low. Courtesy Dr. Greg Mann, National Weather Service Detroit.

A 21st Century Take on the White Hurricane

Modern weather forecasting uses sophisticated computer models to simulate and predict the storms. A storm similar to the Great Storm of 1913 would do significant damage today, but we would be able to see it coming many days, perhaps a week, in advance.

The Detroit National Weather Service office performed a computer simulation of the White Hurricane, providing a detailed look at the winds and waves generated by the storm. Even without the multitude of modern-day observations to feed the computer model, the simulation provided a surprisingly accurate picture of the storm as compared to the original hand-drawn maps.

A century of difference: Original hand-drawn map of mean sea-level pressure from 1913 next to a 2013 computer model simulation of the White Hurricane. Courtesy Dr. Greg Mann, National Weather Service Detroit.

A century of difference: Original hand-drawn map of mean sea-level pressure from 1913 next to a 2013 computer model simulation of the White Hurricane. Courtesy Dr. Greg Mann, National Weather Service Detroit.

Computer model simulation of the White Hurricane supports eyewitness reports of 35 foot (two-story) high waves on Lake Huron at the height of the storm when many ships were lost. Courtesy Dr. Greg Mann, National Weather Service Detroit.

Computer model simulation of the White Hurricane supports eyewitness reports of 35 foot (two-story) high waves on Lake Huron at the height of the storm when many ships were lost. Courtesy Dr. Greg Mann, National Weather Service Detroit.

The Great Storm of 1913 will be remembered for its devastating impact on Great Lakes shipping. The ghastly accounts from the Lake Huron shoreline in the days following the storm are difficult to read.

Modern meteorology gives us tools that allow us to see monster storms like the White Hurricane coming days in advance. A similar storm today would be far less deadly, but just as impactful.


References:
NOAA's 1913 storm simulation

Additional reading: 

  • “Ships Gone Missing” by Robert J. Hemming 
  • “White Hurricane” by David G. Brown

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