Wednesday, May 24, 2006

A Stormy Diversion from the Norm

While The Seventh Sola typically deals with theology and culture, I reserve the right (and pleasure) to throw in some other items that interest me from time to time. This diversion is one of them.

I have been long fascinated with the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald story since the time I first heard Gordon Lightfoot's haunting ode. When someone who lives inland thinks "shipwreck," we generally don't think of a ship going down on the Great Lakes, but instead think first of the ocean. Lake Superior might as well be an ocean, it's so huge! Well, it's been 30 years since the wreck and meteorology has advanced to amazing degrees. The following new analysis was just released by the NOAA. You can get the full report at their website. This is just a summary. So..if you're a history/weather buff..enjoy. If not, bear with me. I'll be back to theological storms in no time.


NOAA Magazine || NOAA Home Page
Commerce Dept.

May 18, 2006 — A re-analysis 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, say the NOAA scientists who 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, or BAMS.

"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 the NOAA National Weather Service forecast office in Negaunee, Mich., and lead author.

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 NOAA National Weather Service forecast office in Cleveland and David Schwab, from the NOAA 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. One of the models used was the NOAA GLERL Wind-Wave Model.

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, makes 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 AMS 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 (GEOSS), NOAA is working with its federal partners, 61 countries and the European Commission to develop a global network that is as integrated as the planet it observes, predicts and protects.

Relevant Web Sites
NOAA Background on Edmund Fitzgerald

NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

Media Contact:
Kent Laborde, NOAA, (202) 482-5757

1 comment:

crownring said...

Should you ever get to the U.P. of Michigan, Sola, you won't want to miss the lighthouse and the Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Bay. They have the bell from The Edmund Fitzgerald and show a short film on the dive to the ship and the placement of a new bell on the ship's bridge that has the names of all those who perished with her inscribed upon it. As you walk through the museum and gaze upon the recovered items from many a tall ship and other vessels which perished in the deceptively calm lake waters, you can almost hear the cries of people perishing in the icy waves of Lake Superior. And while you're there, go down to the stoney beach where you'll find agates that have been polished by the waves for centuries on end.

I have loved the Great Lakes since I first saw the blue of Lake Huron peeking through the lakeside brush as we drove North to Machinaw City ten or so years ago. My husband and I have also crossed Lake Michigan on the last of the railroad car ferries (coverted to domestic use) still in operation on the Great Lakes, The S.S. Badger. I have seen and climbed the stairs to the lantern rooms of many a old lighthouse (The views are ALWAYS incredible.) and had a small taste of what it must have been like to be a lightkeeper at the Catshead Lighthouse on the rawest October day imaginable. There are more lighthouses (or their remains) along the coastlines of Michigan than any other state, over 125 of them. That alone testifies to the fury of The Great Lakes whatever the season. And they still hold a memorial service for those who perished on The Fitz on the anniversary of the tragedy every year at Mariner's Church in Detroit. I believe the late, great undersea ocean adventurer Jacques Cousteau said he'd never been in water so deceptively beautiful and so incredibly treacherous.