What exactly are November storms? And is November 10 really “early” for them?

Hundreds of ships sank in Lake Superior, the largest, coldest and deepest of the Great Lakes. But unless you’re a marine history buff, you can probably name just one: Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank during a storm near Whitefish Point, Michigan on the night of November 10, 1975, killing all 29 on board.

The likely reason you’ve heard of Edmund Fitzgerald is not because he was deadliest Great Lakes Wreck. Because the story was memorialized in haunting detail in Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 song, “The Edmund Fitzgerald Wreckage,” Which tells the story of what happened to captain and crew Edmund Fitzgerald when “the storms of November came early.”

If you’ve been to the North Shore during the Lake Superior season, late in the year, you’ll likely have a sense of what Lightfoot is talking about. During gloomy autumn storms, the lake spews towering white peaks that poke its rocky shores.

But what are the storms of November? And did they come early, as Lightfoot says in the song, when they drowned Edmund Fitzgerald that night 46 years ago?

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Westerly winds “hurricane”

By definition, a storm—November or otherwise—occurs when the winds are between them 34 and 47 knots, or roughly 40 to 54 miles per hour.

When storms occur in Lake Superior, they are usually caused by a weather phenomenon called a mid-latitude cyclone.

“The hurricane part, any time you have strong winds circulating counterclockwise around a low pressure system,” said John Swenson, associate professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Swenson spent a lot of time watching Lake Superior’s reaction to changes in the weather. He grew up on the lake and spoke to MinnPost from his childhood home, where he now lives.

A mid-latitude cyclone is essentially equivalent to a less powerful continental cyclone. On a satellite, it even looks a lot like a hurricane. “You get the winds up. Very nice, aesthetically speaking, but it’s kind of a visionary,” Swenson said.

Mid-latitude cyclones cover much larger areas than tropical cyclones, but are less intense. “They populate the entire North American continent, to some degree, when they are fully developed,” Swenson said. “Their wind is not strong but if you are in the lake it is still very strong.”

Strong mid-latitude cyclone over Lake Superior

Mid-latitude cyclones get their energy from the difference in temperature between two large air masses – a dry, cold mass in the north and a warm humid mass in the south. In the fall, the relative emphasis—on the relative warmth—of the lake water adds fuel to the system. Mid-latitude hurricanes that gather over Lake Superior tend to form in the Four Corners region of Colorado, before intensifying and moving northeast, causing strong winds, Swenson said.

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On average, the center of storms that form in this part of the country passes south of Lake Superior. As a result, the winds are very strong over the lake, which also presents little in the way of wind obstructions, generating huge wave fields, said Swenson – and storms.

The wind makes big and unexpected waves. Many factors determine the size of the waves on the lake, including the source of the wind and how well it blows through the lake. But waves about 30 feet high have been recorded in Lake Superior.

The steamer Matava was driven ashore and broke in two by the storm of November 28, 1905 on Lake Superior in Duluth.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The steamer Matava was driven ashore and broke in two by the storm of November 28, 1905 on Lake Superior in Duluth.

Moreover, Great Lakes waves are very different from ocean waves, because they are mostly wind-driven, compared to tidal-driven ocean waves, warned Matt Zica, a coordination meteorologist at the Michigan National Weather Service’s Marquette office. In the ocean, you often count seven or eight seconds between waves.

“The wind-driven waves in the Great Lakes, the time between those waves is much shorter. And so it might only take a few seconds before the next wave comes. Over you. So it’s a different environment than a lot of what you see on the ocean.”

The November winds come early

But when it comes to Superior Storms, is November 10 really too early, as Lightfoot claims at the end of the first clip of his song?

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In a sense, no. Autumn storm season in the Great Lakes region runs from September through January.

Zika said the wettest month on Lake Superior is November. For example, if you look – even at the ground control station near Whitefish Point, Michigan – at high wind events by month, you’ll find more of them in November than in any other month.

Winds over 40 mph reported in Whitefish Point by 2020

Source: NOAA

But looking more specifically through November, Lightfoot may be working on something. Swenson did some napkin back-to-back math on his 30-year-old storm data set, finding the deadliest storms in the Duluth area.

“I won’t hang my hat on it, but I came up with an average date for the top 20 [fall shoulder season storms] around November 24.” Given the dataset covering the Duluth region – not the eastern part of the lake.

“So he’s not wrong,” said Swenson.

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november witch

Although certainly the most famous, the Edmund Fitzgerald isn’t the only ship to fall victim to the Great Lakes weather patterns in November. In 1905, late November Storm Storm 29 ships sunk or damaged. In November 1913, the Great Lakes storm At least 12 ships sank.

What makes November a dangerous time? It’s not just that the weather is bad. It’s also a busy time in the Great Lakes region. Historically November is approaching the end of shipping season (it’s now more like early January), said Carrie Soden, director of antiquities at the National Museum of the Great Lakes in Toledo, Ohio.

“Shipping companies are trying to finish off their season and get in as much as they can,” she said.

Lake Storm at the Grand Marais, 1938

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Lake Storm at the Grand Marais, 1938

Soden said the storm that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald in particular was no surprise to the crew and captain as they learned bad weather was coming. Arthur M. Anderson’s ship, which was running near Edmund Fitzgerald, survived the storm.

Indeed, the cause of Edmund Fitzgerald’s downfall is still a subject of debate. Soden ran through the prevailing theories. One possibility is that the ship collided with some underwater shoals causing the hull to open. At a 20-foot wave, she said, sailors are unlikely to notice. Another reason, often disproved – but seems to be cited by Lightfoot in the song – is that the hatch opened, letting water in. A third theory assumes that there is a problem with the steel or welds on the ship’s hull. A sister ship was laid down a few years after Edmund Fitzgerald sank due to stress fractures in its hull.

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from radio texts Between Edmund Fitzgerald and Anderson, Edmund Fitzgerald was apparently filling up with water, Soden said.

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“So something happened to lose the integrity of the entire structure. And it’s just a matter of what, in the grand scheme of things, being flooded by a storm. If there hadn’t been a storm and they had one of those problems, it probably would have caused it,” Soden said. “.

In the end, everything that happened to Edmund Fitzgerald likely happened quickly. Soden said there was no call for help.

It is unlikely that a recurrence will occur these days. Zika said the 1975 weather forecast models were less accurate than the models used today. There were satellites and there were numerical models that could help predict the storm’s push, but they were less accurate in locating the center of the storm – and forecasters were less good at communicating potential hazards to ships in the lake.

North Shore circa 1950

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

North Shore circa 1950

“For the time being, there won’t be any ships on the water,” Zika said. “Our forecasting capabilities are now much better, and we can determine which path the highest wind speed will be.”

For example, Zika said Monday that gale-force winds — strong, but not as close as those that sank Edmund Fitzgerald — are expected in the Lake Superior region. later this week.

In this day and age, ships may begin their voyage knowing something like this, but they have enough time and warning to find a safe haven to wait out the storm.

The legend is still alive

Soden said the Edmund Fitzgerald’s sinking loomed large in people’s imaginations in the Great Lakes at the time the ship sank because it was so sudden. It is one of the largest shipwrecks in the history of Lake Superior, and it happened at a time when shipwrecks were not uncommon.

“I’ve had sailors from that time period tell me the whole concept of this size of a ship, with this technology, [it was] Suden said. “I think it will always be the last great shipwreck in the Great Lakes.”

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On November 10 each year, cities around the Great Lakes remember the Edmund Fitzgerald shipwreck.

in a Split Rock Lighthouse in Two Harbors, The beacon of the lighthouse is lit and the names of the men who died in Edmund Fitzgerald’s are read as ship bells. Could you Watch online here. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum will also be in Whitefish Point Streaming memorial party.

There are also less formal celebrations of the Edmund Fitzgerald story. Find a bar stool on the North Shore or relax in a comfortable chair in the lobby as live music plays along the lake – it seems, especially, on dreary days – and there’s a non-existent chance you’ll hear a guitarist strumming the melancholy of Lightfoot storms November.

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