Lake Superior makes its own weather

June 1, 2016


Jordan Smith
Zenith News

Anyone who’s lived in the Northland for even a short time knows that Lake Superior makes its own weather. In fact, all five Great Lakes have their own effects on the local climate. Ours is just the biggest and the coldest—it’s “superior,” you might say.

The storm that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald on November 10, 1975, may be the most famous, but the deadliest storm occurred 62 years earlier, on November 9 and 10, 1913. Known as the Freshwater Fury, it began with a low-pressure center over northern Georgia on a cold front stretching along the Appalachian Mountains.

By the evening of November 9, the low had deepened and moved north over Lake Erie. At Erie, Pennsylvania, the barometric pressure dropped to 28.61". Hurricane force winds roared all the way to Huron and Ontario.

Cleveland was blasted with winds up to 79 miles per hour and 22.2 inches of snow in what came to be known as the “White Hurricane.” Buffalo, New York, saw gusts up to 80 miles per hour. A total of 17 ore ships went down in this storm, 10 of them on Lakes Huron and Erie. The remaining seven were driven ashore by gale force winds. As many as 300 sailors lost their lives.

Another storm on January 25 and 26, 1978, developed in much the same way—a low-pressure system over Georgia and a drop in barometric pressure of 1.18" in 24 hours. This storm also moved north over Lake Erie on the 26th, with Cleveland under record-breaking winds of 82 miles per hour. The barometric pressure was 28.28" and from 4 a.m. to 10 a.m., conditions dropped from 44 degrees with rain to seven degrees and a blizzard.

In Michigan and Ohio, 25-foot snowdrifts piled up, while out on Lake Erie, the ore carrier J. Burton Ayers measured sustained winds of 86 miles per hour with gusts up to 111. But the greatest intensity was found over southern Ontario. In Sarina, the barometric pressure sank to 28.21", while Toronto registered 28.40", shattering the city’s 160-year record of 28.57".

The deadliest blizzard to strike the Midwest in the 20th century was on Armistice Day 1940 on November 11 (Armistice Day is now known as Veterans Day).

In Minnesota, the temperature dropped from 60 degrees to zero in 12 hours. Forty-nine fatalities were attributed to the storm, 20 of whom were duck hunters caught out in the open countryside.

Over 26 inches of snow dumped on the Gopher State, and Minneapolis was hit with 17 inches. Duluth measured a barometric pressure of 28.66", which is equal to a Category 2 hurricane, and winds exceeding 80 miles per hour whipped over Lake Superior. Fifty-nine crewmen died as several ore ships went down on Lake Superior.

Collectively, Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario are the largest freshwater body of water on Earth, with a total area exceeding 95,000 square miles. In 1615, French cartographer, explorer, and colonizer Samuel de Champlain became the first European to explore the Great Lakes, which became a route for settlers.

Champlain is credited as the father of New France, founder of Quebec, and discoverer of the Ottawa River and Lakes Champlain, Ontario, and Huron.

During 12 trips to North America (intended to find a route to Asia), Champlain improved his geographical knowledge, established settlements, and increased the French fur trade. A large lake along the border between New York and Vermont, extending into Quebec’s Missisquoi Bay, bears Champlain’s name.

From Duluth to the eastern end of Lake Ontario, the Great Lakes are navigable for about 1,200 miles. Lake Superior covers nearly 32,000 square miles, with a maximum depth of 1,290 feet. At its widest, the lake is 350 miles from east to west, and 160 miles north to south.

Over 200 rivers drain into Lake Superior. The most notable are the St. Louis and the Nipigon, but the most well known to Minnesotans are the Gooseberry and Temperance Rivers. In Superior, the Nemadji River (which also crosses into Minnesota) drains into the bay.

Lake Superior is the largest lake in the Western Hemisphere. Its first recorded name was “Gichigami,” Ojibwe for “big lake.” The French called it “Lac Supèrieur,” meaning “upper lake.”

In 1959, the St. Lawrence Seaway linked Lake Superior to the Atlantic. In addition to Duluth/Superior, there are ports at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan; Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario; Thunder Bay; and Two Harbors. Its major islands are Isle Royale in Michigan and Michipicoten Island in Ontario. Keeweenaw Peninsula, in Michigan’s UP, can also be thought of as a large island, since it is divided from the mainland by a river.

The June forecast calls for temperatures three degrees above average, with plenty of thunderstorms, making for plenty of precipitation, but none of it in the form of snow—unless Lake Superior decides otherwise!

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