Painting of two-masted schooner in full sail, black and white image

The Mystery of Lake Michigan

The Bermuda Triangle of the Great Lakes
5 Dec 2022

What’s the worst storm you’ve witnessed?

Many types of storms occur globally; tornadoes on land and sometimes on water, tsunamis at sea, and derechos usually happen across the land. We also see storms as common as thunder and lightning. Usually, when we think of powerful storms, we typically think of the few listed above. It is uncommon to believe that gigantic storms happen on lakes; however, the size and power of our Great Lakes are often underestimated.


What is a Derecho Storm?

A derecho is a storm that produces a strong wind that creates a streak or a line across a landscape during the late spring and summer. These storms combine the destructive nature of a tornado with the straight-line nature of a thunderstorm. Derechos are downward clusters of wind ranging from 6 to 10 kilometres long and can exceed 160 kilometres an hour. Inside each storm, smaller pockets of wind called microbursts and burst swaths make the current and strength more destructive.


May Derecho of 2022

In May of this year, all of Southern Ontario experienced a massive derecho storm that lasted around nine hours. The track was 998 kilometres long, with a peak wind gust of about 89 to 118 kilometres an hour. This storm caused widespread power outages that left over one million Canadians without power and around 875 million dollars in damages. The May Derecho was devastating to some Canadians, and we endured a storm that is not often seen in this region. Storms such as these occur once in a century, they are rare marvels of nature. Derechos are uncommon in Southern Ontario, similar to how these types of storms are unusual on the Great Lakes. However, just because something is uncommon does not mean it never happens.


The Great Lakes Storm of 1913

N. Henderson painting of AcadianNicholas Henderson was a local Kingston artist who lived from 1862 to 1934. He spent his early life at sea and became an avid painter later in life, specifically of marine scenes. This is a painting of a cargo ship, the Acadian.“The bell rang for supper at 3:45 P.M., which was prepared and the tables set, when a gigantic sea mounted our stern, flooding the fantail, sending torrents of water through the passageways on each side of the cabin, concaving the cabin, breaking the windows in the after cabin, washing our provisions out of the refrigerator and practically destroying them all, leaving us with one ham and a few potatoes...Volumes of water came down on the engine through the upper skylights, and at times there were from four to six feet of water in the cabin.” — Captain S. A. Lyons, captain of the steamer J. H. Sheadle on Lake Superior.

This storm had multiple names, the White Hurricane, the Freshwater Fury, the Big Blow, and the Great Lakes Storm of 1913. This storm was one of the most deadly and destructive storms to occur on the Great Lakes.

No lake master can recall in all his experience a storm of such unprecedented violence with such rapid changes in the direction of the wind and its gusts of such fearful speed... It was unusual and unprecedented and it may be centuries before such a combination of forces may be experienced again.” — Excerpt from the 1913 Lake Carriers’ Association report.

The Great Lakes Storm began on November 7th and lasted until November 10th. Storms of this power would usually last around 4 hours; this storm lasted over 16 hours. In comparison to the May Derecho, this storm was almost double in length. The storm winds also outpowered the May Derecho at 145 kilometres an hour, reflecting hurricane wind speeds. The force of the wind created 11-metre-high waves on the lakes that caused significant shipwrecks - a total of 12 ships were sunk, and at least 30 others were damaged. More than 250 people lost their lives to the storm, and there were millions of dollars worth of damages.

It is easy to forget the size and power of the Great Lakes; the five lakes combined are the largest body of freshwater on the surface of the earth. Due to their vast nature and power, they are known as inland seas or freshwater oceans that spread across Canada. Since the Great Lakes Storm of 1913, we have only seen a handful of storms that reflected this level of power on the lakes or in Canada. The May Derecho showed similar characteristics and strength, but the White Hurricane was not easily matched.



Alexander StoringBy Avery Spoelstra

Research Assistant, Autumn 2022


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