"Modern observation and forecast systems have substantially improved
forecasts for the Great Lakes over the past 30 years, allowing for
greater advance notice of storms, which allows most ships to avoid
such severe conditions," the authors wrote. "But the tragic events
of 10 November 1975 should continue to serve as a reminder of the
hazards one can encounter when traveling on the Great Lakes."
findings are the cover article in the May issue of the Bulletin of
the American Meteorological Society.
"During the late afternoon and early evening of Nov. 10,
conditions deteriorated rapidly, with winds in excess of 69 miles
per hour, hurricane-force gusts and waves more than 25 feet high,"
said Thomas Hultquist, science and operations officer at NOAA's
National Weather Service Forecast Office in Negaunee, Mich., and
lead author of the article.
The loss of the 729-foot-long ship and all aboard is immortalized
in the Gordon Lightfoot song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."
The songwriter mentions the weather in the lines "the skies of
November turn gloomy," "the gales of November come early," and "face
of a hurricane west wind."
"This shows how quickly conditions can worsen and become
life-threatening on the Great Lakes," wrote Hultquist and his
co-authors, Michael Dutter from the National Weather Service
Forecast Office in Cleveland and David Schwab from NOAA's Great
Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich.
The NOAA authors combined meteorological observations from the
storm with hindcasts -- forecasts run in retrospect -- of conditions
throughout the storm. The hindcasts indicated the critical six-hour
window that proved fatal to the ship and its crew. Hindcasts help
meteorologists better understand historical events, which could also
A lack of surface weather observations made it difficult for
researchers to determine the actual conditions. However, using
high-resolution numerical computer models, the three researchers
were able to simulate a more complete picture of wind and wave
conditions during the storm.
[to top of second column]
In addition to high winds and waves, the freighter was caught in
waves traveling west to east. This could result in a hazardous
rolling motion for vessels traveling southward, the direction that
the Edmund Fitzgerald was heading as it tried to reach the safety of
Whitefish Bay, about 15 miles from where it sank.
"While high winds on Lake Superior are not rare, it is unusual
for the waves to get that high on the lake," said Schwab. "It's
unlikely that Captain Ernest McSorley, the skipper of the Edmund
Fitzgerald, had ever seen anything like that in his career."
The authors note that storms of the magnitude of the Nov. 9-10,
1975, storm occur every two to six years on average. Lake Superior
is the largest of the Great Lakes. The size of the lake, the low
number of vessels traveling the lake and the infrequency of the high
wave conditions make the tragedy of the Edmund Fitzgerald a rare
The American Meteorological
Society is the nation's leading professional organization for
those involved in the atmospheric and related sciences. Founded in
1919, the society has more than 11,000 international members,
organizes nearly a dozen scientific conferences annually and
publishes nine peer-reviewed journals.
NOAA, an agency of the U.S.
Department of Commerce, is dedicated to enhancing economic security
and national safety through the prediction and research of weather
and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship
of the nation's coastal and marine resources. Through the emerging
Global Earth Observation System of Systems, NOAA is working with its
federal partners, 60 countries and the European Commission to
develop a global network that is as integrated as the planet it
observes, predicts and protects.
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration news release]