Friday, November 8, 2013

The "White Hurricane" of 1913

One hundred years ago this week a massive storm battered the Great Lakes over a period of four days, November 7-11. The storm lingered over the region for four days, generating hurricane force winds (74 mph or greater) over the lakes, heavy snow and blizzard conditions, and 35 foot waves on the Great Lakes. A dozen ships were lost on the lakes, 33 others were damaged, and 250 lives were lost. This storm still remains as the worst U.S. maritime disaster.

The "White Hurricane" was the result of two separate weather systems that merged into one huge system that covered the entire eastern half of the country. In some respects the evolution of this system has some similarities to the evolution of Superstorm Sandy last year. On November 7-8 a strong low was moving across the northern U.S. trailing a strong Arctic cold front. This system primarily impacted Lakes Superior and Michigan, producing storm force winds, heavy snow, and high waves. Several large ships were damaged or run aground as this system moved across the lakes. In the meantime, weak low was moving northeast out of the Gulf states and over the southeastern United States on November 8.

Surface weather map for the morning of November 8, 1913 with notations showing the location of the cold front, the Arctic air, and the low in the southeast U.S.,

Over the next 24 hours the low over the Great Lakes phased, or merged, with the low in the southeast, resulting in explosive and rapid intensification, what we call a meteorological "bomb". On the morning of November 9, 1913 the intense storm was centered over Washington DC.

Surface weather map for the morning of November 9, 1913.

Instead of moving out to sea, the storm turned to the north northwest. The circulation of the storm was tapping the cold Arctic air on it's west side and feeding off abundant moisture from the Atlantic. By the morning of November 10 the center of the storm was located over Lake Ontario.

Winds associated with the storm were estimated to be at hurricane force (74 mph or greater) for a period from 10 to 20 hours over the Great Lakes. Survivors reported wind gusts to 90 mph on Lake Huron on November 9. Winds on Lake Erie were 50 to 70 mph with gust to 85 mph. The ferocious winds for a prolonged period of time over he lakes produced waves up to 35 feet occurring as often as every three minutes. Ships of the day were not capable of withstanding these extreme conditions, especially with whiteout conditions and buildup of ice on the ships . A total of 12 ships were lost and 33 others were damaged during the four-day period. Several ships lost during the storm were never located.

Location of ships lost during the White Hurricane of November 7-10, 1913.
Credit: National Weather Service Detroit, MI

Snowfall blanketed much of the Great Lakes region from this storm. Heavy snow fell across eastern Ohio, West Virginia, and western Pennsylvania with moderate snowfall extending west into Michigan. The Great Lakes were still relatively warm in early November, and the frigid Arctic air streaming over the warm waters resulted in heavy lake enhanced snow. Record snowfall occurred in Cleveland, OH  with 17.4 inches falling in a 24 hour period and a three day total of 22.2 inches.

It was November 11 before the storm finally began to pull away from the region. This storm had, as you might imagine, widespread impact. In some areas freezing rain glazed telephone, telegraph, and power lines prior to the snow and combined with the high winds caused extensive damage. The total damages from this storm were more than $117 million in today's dollars.

You can read more about this epic storm at the following web sites:

Centennial Anniversary Storm of 1913 - NOAA

The "White Hurricane" Storm of November 1913 - A Numerical Model Retrospective - NWS Detroit

November 9-11, 1913: Great Lakes Hurricane - Ohio Historical Society

Frozen Fury: The 1913 White Hurricane - Lake Superior Magazine

There has also been a book written about this storm.  "White Hurricane - A Great lakes November Gale and America's Deadliest Maritime Disaster" by David G. Brown

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