Would today’s forecasts save The Edmund Fitzgerald?

I’ll never forget the wind on November 10, 1975. I remember the howling winds in the Twin Cities whistling through the trees. When I heard TV news legend Dave Moore on WCCO-TV tell us that the Edmund Fitzgerald had gone down in Lake Superior, I felt the coldest chill of my life go down the back of my neck. Our family had recently circled Lake Superior on a vacation, and I remember thinking about the horror of being in that storm on that lake on a dark November night.

35 years ago today that the Fitz went down. Looking back, there were several weather scenarios that could have saved the Fitz. The Fitz could have left 6 hours earlier, or stayed in port another 48 hours. They could have taken a shorter, more southerly route and possibly made Whitefish Bay before the height of the storm. If weather forecasters in 1975 had better data, they could have forecast the intense and rapid deepening of the storm system that would produce hurricane force winds and gigantic waves that sunk the Fitz.

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Vastly improved data from weather radar and satellites and better numerical weather models have improved marine weather forecasts dramatically since 1975. In 1975 numerical models had just 3 “grid points” (data points) over Lake Superior. By 2000, that number had increased to 420. That’s 140 times the number available in 1975.

The NWS office in Marquette Michigan has done excellent and comprehensive work on analyzing the “Fitzgerald” storm and others that have savaged the big lake in November.

The Fitz storm began as a fairly moderate low pressure system in Kansas on November 9th. The central pressure at the time was 29.53″. By the morning of November 10th the surface low had raced all the way to Marquette, and deepened to 29.00″. Later that evening, the low was near James Bay in Ontario with a surface pressure of 28.88″. That’s the equivalent of a Category 2 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane intensity scale!

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That kind of rapid intensification was almost impossible to forecast back in 1975. The wave heights generated on Lake Superior were believed to be at least 16 to 18 feet druing the height of the storm. Since so called “peak waves” or rouge waves can superimpose on top of each other, it is believed the waves that sunk the Fitz may have been twice as high, possibly up to 30+ feet or higher.

It appears that a combination of factors led to the sinking of the Fitz in November 1975. It’s also quite likely that improvements in weather forecast would have saved the Fitz today. Those improvements are also a big reasons we haven’t had any disasters like the Fitz in recent history.

Here are some great resources on the storm that sunk the Edmund Fitzgerald.

-NWS Marquette Michigan Edmund Fitzgerald Page

-University of Wisconsin Edmund Fitzgerald data

-UW Madison computer simulation of Fitz storm

-Weather Doctor Fitz page

PH

  • Dave Carlson

    Good stuff, thanks.

    The charts you provided show the storm moving much faster than the one we just had Halloween week.

    1975 was two years after I left professional weather forecasting for good, as an Air Force Weather Officer.

    I have no memory of the day of the Fitzgerald event, but have been telling the story on the job for the past ten seasons at Split Rock Lighthouse Historic Site.

    The routine we had in 1969 already for tracking major events was good, but slow. We had maps at hand covering a five state area, and could plot hourly observations by hand. The procedure was to do so every three hours. I can still view hourly weather observations and get a rough idea where a storm is going, how fast, and where the strongest winds will be. I’m still surprised at how fast things change once a big storm starts to move.