NOAA studies conditions during Edmund Fitzgerald wreck          Send a link to a friend

[MAY 19, 2006]  WASHINGTON -- A reanalysis of the weather conditions on Lake Superior during the November 1975 gale when the lake freighter Edmund Fitzgerald went down, killing all 29 aboard, shows a period when the winds and waves were the most extreme. Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conducted the review.

"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."

The 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 improve forecasts.

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.

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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 event.

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.

[National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration news release]

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