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Weather Almanac for November 1998
THE WINDS OF NOVEMBER
The season of solar winter descends upon the Northern Hemisphere in early November, the three-month period of the shortest daylight and the least possible daily solar energy. Add to that increased cloudiness as large storm systems cross most of North America, and November rightly deserves the title of Gloomiest Month of the year. In fact, poet Thomas Hood in his poem No described the time as:
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
Gloomy skies are not the only hallmarks of the month of November, for windiness and storminess also characterize the month. The Anglo-Saxons called the eleventh month of the year the winde-monath in their homeland. In many areas of North America, particularly along the Canada-US border, the name would be appropriate as well. In November, the first of the strong winter storms follow a storm track southward from the polar regions into the most heavily populated sections of North America. These storms begin their annual trek just at the time when the tropical storm season in the southern Americas sounds the all-clear.
As autumn blends into winter, the North American continent is besieged with storminess. In the northwest, the Aleutian Low slips into its winter position in the northwestern Gulf of Alaska. This mother of storms sends wave upon stormy wave against the Pacific coasts of Alaska, British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. High winds and waves accompany these storms on the seas. When the storms collide with the coastal mountains, heavy and steady rains fall, producing the great giant trees of the northern and temperate rainforests. At the height of the storm season, there is barely a respite between the storms.
Across the continent off the northern Atlantic Coast, powerful Nor'easters form. These storms can lash the coastline and offshore waters for days with a fierceness equal to the hurricanes of earlier months. To make their signature unique, these storms add ice, snow and frigid temperatures to the deadly mix of wind and rain, wave and storm surge.
But our weather eye this month focuses on an area in mid-continent, the Great Lakes region. Here over the largest bodies of fresh water in the world, two storm tracks converge in November. One brings storms south from Alberta, the precursors to the Alberta Clipper blizzards. The second track shoots storms from the lee of the Rockies near Colorado toward the Great Lakes region. When these storms cross the region, the waters of the Great Lakes often put an even more deadly spin on the cyclonic systems.
Many great storms have been borne over the Lakes during November of the Mothers Superior, Michigan, and Huron, and their toll on Great Lakes shipping has long been the subject of story and song. In his classic ballad, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, folksinger Gordon Lightfoot sang of the "bones to be chewed when the gales of November blow early." At least 25 killer storms have greeted November sailors on the five Lakes since 1847. The storms of November have brought death to more sailors on the Great Lakes than any other agent.
In Herman Melville's classic whaling novel Moby Dick, the narrator Ishmael tells us that "these grand fresh water seas of ours...are swept by Borean and dismantling waves as dire as any that lash the salted sea...they have drowned many a midnight ship with all its shrieking crew."
The Lake waves do pound. Strain gauges mounted on the ore-carrier Edward L. Ryerson measured a stress of 23,000 pounds per square inch on its hull during a 1966 Lake Huron gale. Though the Ryerson survived, the 841 ft (256 m) Daniel J. Morrell broke in two and sank in 61 metres (200 ft) of water. And the winds do blow. Storm winds frequently exceed hurricane force on the open waters. In fact, mariners have called such autumn storms Great Lakes hurricanes.
Wind and wave are not the only weapons of the November Storm King, for driving rain or snow, ice and freezing temperatures are also hazards that Lake mariners must face. Although storms can sweep across the Great Lakes region during any month, November is the month most honored in memory and song. What then is the reason for this infamy?
The Great Lakes play a major role in determining the climate and weather of their region. The reason for their large influence lies in their waters. Water, you see, gains or losses heat much slower than air or land surfaces. Thus, the large volumes of water in the Great Lakes cool so slowly that the water temperatures of all the Great Lakes are out of step with the seasons by several months.
As autumn progresses, the lake waters still retain much of their summer warmth. When the first cold, northern air masses move out of the arctic and across the Lakes, they are warmed by the waters below. This added heat tempers the arctic outbreak thus postponing the first frosts along the southern and eastern lake shores by several weeks. The fruit belts of Ontario, Michigan and upper New York State are made possible by this moderating influence on autumnal cold air outbreaks.
But by late September, the contrast between the cold, dry air moving down from the Canadian North and the warm, moist air flowing up from the Gulf of Mexico can cause great storm systems to form along the polar front. These storms move along several storm tracks of which two cross the Great Lakes basin in November. As these storms move across the Lakes, they receive heat energy from the warm waters below, which provides additional fuel to run the storm engine.
When a developed or developing storm system moves across the relatively warm waters, it can intensify with explosive speed. The resulting storms produce hurricane-force winds reaching 160 km/h (100 mph), large waves that at times exceed 15 m (50 ft) in height, and heavy precipitation over the water and along the shoreline. A few of these storms stall over the Great Lakes basin, voraciously feeding and growing on the warm-water energy below them. While spinning in place, such storms may ravage the Lakes and surrounding shoreline for days.
Ships caught on the Great Lakes during such fierce storms can be tossed like toys in the fury of wind and wave. As early as 1835, a November storm "swept the lakes clear of sail." In 1847, a major storm claimed 77 ships on the Great Lakes. Ten years later, 65 vessels went down as a storm crossed the Lakes. A gale on Lake Superior in 1905 wrecked 111 ships and sent 14 steel carriers ashore. In 1958 and 1975, powerful storms also caused shipwrecks and damage over the Great Lakes. In the latter storm, the giant ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald went down with all 29 hands.
The king of Great Lakes storms, however, struck Lake Huron and Lake Erie in 1913 when wind and wave sent 12 vessels to the bottom at a cost of more than 230 lives (some estimate as many as 300) and pushed 20 additional ships aground. The winds on Lake Huron on November 9, 1913 blew from the north at speeds steadily exceeding 110 km/h (69 mph) with gusts in excess of 139 km/h (86 mph).
Low visibility due to the heavy snow and freezing spray added to the dangers of winds and waves on the waters. The steamer J.F. Durston crossing Lake Huron arrived at Mackinaw covered with 1000 tons of ice. At Port Huron, Michigan at the southern end of the lake, trees were uprooted, roofs ripped off buildings and the shoreline severely eroded. Sand driven by the waves swept over a protective breakwater and into the mouth of the Port Huron canal, completely blocking it with an estimated 18,000 cubic metres (640,000 cubic feet) of sand.
As the storm, known historically as the "Ultimate Storm" and the "Big Blow," moved across Lake Erie, the barometer dipped to 96.9 kPa (28.61 inches) in Erie, Pennsylvania. Buffalo, New York measured winds of 100 km/h (62 mph) and 56 cm (22 in) of snow fell on Cleveland, Ohio after a day of freezing rain.
The winds blowing across Lake Erie from the west caused the lake level to drop up to 1.8 m (6 ft) in the western basin, leaving several boats sitting on the muddy bottom of Maumee Bay. As the storm moved across Lake Erie, it blasted Ohio residents with wind and snow and cold temperatures. Even today the storm is considered one of the most severe winter storms in the state's weather history. In its wake, 98-year-old John Williams of Sandusky remarked to the Toledo Blade: "Whenever some old-timer tries to tell you that the old-fashioned winter was worse than the sample we've just had, put him down as an imaginative chap."
The beat of November storm wind and wave has been heard by a good many Lake mariners. Among the many ships lost on the Great Lakes waters when the storm winds of November blew deadly were: the schooner Black Hawk (1847), the schooner Persia (1869), the ore carriers Charles S. Price and the James B. Carruthers (1913), the steel freighter Novadoc (1940), the limestone carrier Carl D. Bradley (1958), and the ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald (1975). The legends live on; the story continues. Mariners still face the Great Lakes and their angry, stormy moods, but modern communications, advanced weather forecasts and radar provide some degree of warning when the angry gales of November come slashing.
November is a month for remembrance. During the eleventh month, we remember the men and women who have lost their lives in the wars of this century as well as those lost in the gales of November on the Great Lakes and the great oceans. Let us also take a moment of silence today to remember those thousands who have lost their lives recently across Central America to the wind and rains of Hurricane Mitch. May they find more peaceful weather.
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