Great Lakes Region

Two Weather Systems Collide

The 1913 Storm was the result of two storms that converged over the Great Lakes. One traveled southeastward from western Canada; the other moved from the southern Great Plains to the Carolinas, then northward toward the Great Lakes.

The storm of November 1913 began as two separate weather systems.  A rather weak low pressure system tracked east across the southern United States from November 6th-8th.  At the same time, a secondary low pressure system and associated Arctic cold front moved south out of Canada and approached the Upper Great Lakes the morning of November 7th.  The air behind the Arctic front was very cold for early November, with temperatures plunging into the single digits across the Northern Plains.  Strong southwest winds damper up in advance of the low pressure system while a strong northwest wind developed behind it.

On the morning of November 9th, the southern storm system began to intensify over northern Virginia as the Arctic front pushed southeast through the Ohio Valley.  The central pressure dropped to 29.10 inches and absorbed the weaker system approaching from the north.  As the much colder air fed into the system, the storm began backing to the north-northwest towards its cold air supply, becoming a meteorological monster, growing and feeding on the moisture from the Atlantic and mixing with the Arctic cold across the Great Lakes.

Wave breaking on the shore of Lake Michigan. Published November 10, 1913 in the Chicago Tribune.

By the evening of November 9th, the storm deepened to a very intense central pressure of approximately 28.60 inches (969 millibars) as it tracked north-northwest to eastern Lake Erie.  At the same time, strong Arctic high pressure (30.54 inches) was approaching northwest Minnesota.  The proximity of the two weather systems resulted in strengthening of the pressure gradient between them, producing a prolonged and intense wind across the Great Lakes.  The storm finally began to weaken on November 10th and shifted to the St. Lawrence Valley on November 11th.

Few wind reports are available from the lakes themselves but hourly observations are available at the ports downwind of the lakes.  Lake Huron suffered the greatest losses during the storm and winds measured downwind of the lake at  Port Huron, Michigan, increased to 50 to 60 mph during the afternoon and persisted until almost midnight.  Winds were even stronger on Lake Erie with speeds of 50-70 mph with gusts near 85 mph.



 A Firsthand Account

A report from the Lake Carriers Association following the storm reported:

 “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!  Storms ordinarily of that velocity do not last over four or five hours, but this storm raged for sixteen hours continuously at an average velocity of sixty miles per hour, with frequent spurts of seventy and over. 

Obviously, with a wind of such long duration, the seas that were made were such that the lakes are not ordinarily acquainted with.  The testimony of masters is that the waves were at least 35 feet high and followed each other in quick succession, three waves ordinarily coming one right after the other. 

They were considerably shorter than the waves that are formed by an ordinary gale.  Being of such height and hurled with such force and such rapid succession, the ships must have been subjected to incredible punishment!” 


Record Breaking Snowfall

A Cleveland street car after the 1913 storm.

The winds and rough seas were only part of the story during the storm as an extensive area of snow and blinding snow squalls developed across the Great Lakes region.   Heavy synoptic snow fell across eastern Ohio, West Virginia, and western Pennsylvania with moderate snowfall extending west to Michigan.  More noteworthy however was the impressive and in some cases record breaking lake effect snows that developed as the unseasonably cold air settled over the warm waters.  The wind whipped snows blinded ships trapped on the lakes and crippled cities with tremendous snow drifts of 4 to 5 feet reported from Port Huron, Michigan to Cleveland, Ohio.

A Cleveland street car after the 1913 storm.

Cleveland was hit the hardest with snow, with 17.4 inches falling in a 24 hour window and a three day total of 22.2 inches.  This smashed the previous 24 hour record snowfall in Cleveland by 4.4 inches.  The storm paralyzed the city with nearly all businesses, factories, and schools closed on November 10th with slow recovery through the day on the 11th.   What few street cars and trains that were running were several hours behind schedule and most roads were impassible to cars.  The city suffered extensive power and telephone outages and the telegraph lines were down for several days.  Damage estimates in the Cleveland area alone were approximately 3.5 million dollars in 1913, equivalent to 82 million dollars in 2013.


Page content provided by Karen Clark (NOAA National Weather Service Meteorologist), Sarah Jamison (NOAA National Weather Service Hydrologist) and William R. Deedler, (Author of “Hell Hath’ No Fury Like a Great Lakes Fall Storm: Great Lakes White Hurrican November 1913.”)

Back to Centennial Anniversary Storm of 1913 main page.

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