November gales bring shipping to a halt

Lake Erie seiche resulting from November gale winds forced more than 20 ships to seek safe anchorage.

Michigan State University Extension and Michigan Sea Grant are actively engaged in education and outreach relating to weather and water levels. With more than 3,200 miles of Great Lakes shoreline, Great Lakes water levels have a huge impact on Michigan’s coastal communities and economies. They affect coastal properties and infrastructure, plant and wildlife habitat, shipping, recreation and manufacturing. Early this month, the “gales of November” reminded us of how strong these forces of nature are, and how easily they can affect shipping.

Among Great Lakes shippers, November is well-known for the fierce storms that have resulted in the loss of many ships and sailors over the years. Previous articles described the Great Storm of 1913, called the “White Hurricane.” In addition to shipwrecks, these storms have also disrupted the movement of grain, iron ore, coal, stone and other commodities that are integral to the economies of the states and provinces surrounding the Great Lakes.

While the tempest that blew through the region on Nov. 12, 2015, did not result in shipwreck or loss of life, the gale force winds and gusts up to 60 mph did result in a phenomenon that brought shipping on Lake Erie to a virtual halt.

The wind-created phenomenon is called a seiche. The word is French and means “to sway back and forth” and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines a seiche as a standing wave oscillating in a body of water. In the case of Lake Erie, the winds created a standing wave that resulted in a 7.5 foot increase in the water level at Buffalo over a ten hour period on Nov. 12, 2015. At the opposite (western) end of the lake in Toledo, the water level fell by almost the same amount over the same period.

While seiches are a regular occurrence on the Great Lakes, Lake Erie, the shallowest of the lakes, is especially susceptible. Because the western end of the lake is naturally shallow, the water level drop of Nov. 12, 2015, prevented ships from navigating through the channels to or from the Detroit River without fear of hitting bottom.

The notorious Bar Point area where the river meets the lake is littered with the remains of dozens of ships that learned this lesson the hard way. Several vessels were forced to seek anchorage in the Detroit River and even out in the open waters of Lake Erie until the winds abated and water levels returned to normal. More than twenty vessels had their itineraries disrupted by the storm in the Lake Erie-Huron corridor alone.

While Great Lakes freighters still have almost two months before the Soo Locks close for the winter, oceangoing ships (“salties”) only have until Dec. 26, 2015, to clear the seaway through the Welland Canal on their route to the Atlantic. Every day or hour lost to weather can make the difference in a salties’ ability to make another trip before the deadline.

In the world of shipping, the phrase “time means money” is literally true. Shipping through the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System is one of the key drivers of the U.S. and Canadian economies. The industry creates 227,000 jobs in the two countries, and produces business revenues of $35 billion. Every ship carries a payload worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Seiches causing extreme water level drops like the one on Nov. 12, while short in duration, can have significant and long-term impacts on our Great Lakes economy.

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 33 university-based programs.

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