How Edmund Fitzgerald’s sinking inspired advances in storm navigation
The Detroit News November 26, 2023
DETROIT (Tribune News Service) — The sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald not only inspired an iconic ballad from Canadian crooner Gordon Lightfoot, it also led to the advancement of Great Lakes weather monitoring and forecasting that has helped ships navigate storms ever since.
Forty-eight years ago, the largest freighter in Lake Superior history sank during a November storm.
“Back in 1975, there were actually zero wave-monitoring buoys on Lake Superior, which is hard to even fathom,” said Matt Zika, a meteorologist at the National Weather Station’s Marquette office. “You take Lake Superior, which is basically the size of South Carolina, and there was not a single station that was reporting and telling us what the true wave heights were on the lake.”
The gales of November were not a surprise on Nov. 10, 1975, the day the Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior off the Upper Peninsula’s Whitefish Point and her whole crew of 29 was killed. The ship was carrying taconite pellets from Superior, Wis., and bound for ports in Detroit and Toledo. Meteorologists had forecast the storm, and the Fitzgerald’s captain and first mate were in touch with another ship’s captain and the U.S. Coast Guard.
Still, there was limited communication between ships and meteorologists compared to now, only daily forecast updates, less timely and less accurate predictions, and only weak computer monitoring capabilities. Meteorologists relied on ship crews to report their observations from the water.
The storm that blew through the Great Lakes on Nov. 9 and 10, 1975, was big. The captain of another ship that was a few miles behind the Fitzgerald during the storm, the Arthur M. Anderson, recorded wind gusts reaching 70 knots (nearly 81 miles per hour) and waves of up to 25 feet, according to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.
Though big, it wasn’t unusual. Zika referred to it as a “classic” storm, blowing in from the Plains and intensifying as it moved northeast toward the Great Lakes.
Fall conditions bring severe and dangerous storms to the Great Lakes. By November, the lakes have been absorbing summer heat for months, so they are warmer than the air masses that roll over them. They behave like a boiling pot of water, with warm air rising into the atmosphere and tumbling around with the cold air, creating strong waves and turbulent water.
“We’ve had storms in the last 10 years that have had wind speeds and wave action that rivaled what occurred back in the 1975 storm,” Zika said. “The difference is now the alerting, getting the warning out ahead of time, (telling captains) ‘Oh, there’s going to be a storm that’s going to produce waves in excess of 25 feet on Lake Superior with wind in excess of 60 knots.’
“We’re much better at predicting that and getting the word out, so you’re not having folks out in those vulnerable conditions like you would have back in the 1970s with limited warnings.”
Shipwrecks’ silver linings
Innovations tend to follow disaster, said Ric Mixter, a Great Lakes shipwreck historian who recently released a book and documentary called “Tattletale Sounds” about the Edmund Fitzgerald.
After three freighters sank in Lake Michigan near Pentwater during the Armistice Day Storm of 1940, the Chicago weather station went to 24-hour operations. More weather stations started sharing the duty of forecasting storms, and shipmates started sharing weather observations from the water.
Life jackets were required to have crotch straps that would keep them better attached to people’s torsos after the SS Carl Bradley went down in Lake Michigan in November 1958. The cork life jackets worn by many of the Bradley’s shipmates simply weren’t effective, the Coast Guard’s Marine Board of Investigation determined after reviewing the incident.
“Really, all of these big storms kind of gave way to a little bit of improvement,” Mixter said.
It’s shipwrecks’ silver lining.
Eight weather data buoys were installed on the Great Lakes in 1979 in response to the Edmund Fitzgerald wreck, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wrote in a blog post about the shipping freighter disaster. The buoys measured wind speed, wind direction and wave height.
That’s a long time to implement such important weather monitoring instruments, Mixter said.
“The technology was there, they just couldn’t get the funding to do it, and that was sad because that definitely is something that’s improved the forecasting,” he said. “You can look out there, see what the buoys are doing. That’s not just freighters, that’s every fisherman, that’s charter operators that can look at those buoys and say, ‘OK, it’s not good to go out there; this is going to be a bad spot.’ ”
The National Weather Service office in Marquette described weather buoys as “one of the most important improvements in marine technology since 1975” in a wide-ranging exploration of the Edmund Fitzgerald and its legacy.
More accurate predictions
There are now almost 30 buoys and weather observations stations across Lake Superior. They are owned by the National Weather Service, universities, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Environment and Climate Change Canada. People can call buoys through the National Data Buoy Center’s Dial-A-Buoy phone service to hear hourly recorded updates.
The buoys help scientists improve models and forecasting so weather stations can give more accurate predictions, Zika said. If forecasts didn’t predict what actually took place on the water, scientists can tweak models to get better predictions.
Another remaining challenge to the program is winter. Buoys can’t withstand ice, so most get removed from the water after November and replaced in the spring.
“That’s kind of an interesting challenge, because our storm season occurs during the fall and the winter season,” Zika said. “A lot of times, by the latter part of that storm season, we don’t even have the buoys out there to measure.”
Scientists with NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory are testing sturdier buoys that can withstand ice and remain in the water all winter, perhaps meaning there will someday be more robust winter monitoring of Great Lakes water conditions.
Zika said he would be happy to see hundreds of new buoys scattered across the lake to help meteorologists improve their predictions.
Scientists are data-oriented, he said, and would be unlikely to turn down a chance to collect more data from the water since meteorologists use the data to help keep people safe on North America’s inland seas.
“With all the ecotourism we have on Lake Superior in the summertime near Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and other areas, we can provide a much more high-detailed picture of what’s happening in real-time so that we can include that information in our forecasts for folks that are going right offshore and make sure that they’re staying safe,” Zika said.
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