Great Lakes Region

What would happen if the 1913 White Hurricane happened in 2013?  Would mariners be safer today than they were 100 year ago?  To answer these questions, let’s consider how technology is used by mariners on the Great Lakes to promote safety, and how technology and weather services have evolved over the past 100 years.

What information and technologies were available to mariners on the Great Lakes in 1913?

The Weather Bureau had been in existence for a number of years prior to 1913. In the early 20th Century several important inventions such as Marconi’s wireless telegraph, Edison’s telephone, and the Wright brothers air flight opened new doors to weather forecasting and dissemination. In fact, many improvements occurred in the field of weather forecasting shortly after the 1913 storm, primarily because of complaints lodged against the U.S. Weather Bureau for inaccurate weather forecasting and slow communication of storm warnings.

Coastal Warning Display Signals Source: NOAA Marine Forecast

Coastal Warning Flags & Pennants

Although these technological advances were changing the landscape of weather forecasting in the United States, many Great Lakes weather warnings were still communicated via flags and pennants. The Weather Bureau would individually notify coastal locations on when to raise and lower signals based on the hazard threat to mariners.This Coastal Warning Display program was used for over 100 years and was finally discontinued on February 15, 1989. Despite the official retirement of the Coastal Warning Display program, the U.S. Coast Guard and some other stations continued to display the warning signals without direct participation from the National Weather Service.


Early Weather Balloons

Weather Balloon circa 1920.

In the early 1900’s, the Weather Bureau began mailing one to two week forecast maps to hundreds of locations across the United States.   These forecasts were based primarily upon volunteer observations, kite instruments and a sparse weather balloon network.    Although this was a significant step forward in the amount of weather information a mariner might have at their disposal, the lack of Great Lakes observations or access to real time data resulted in large unknowns. The first weather balloon sounding in the United States occurred in St. Louis in 1904. In the early 1900s, weather balloon data was not easily incorporated into real time forecasts because balloons had to be retrieved after launch and the data manually recovered.




Natural Clues

“Red Sky at Night” Source: NOAA image library

To help fill in these “unknowns”, the mariner of 1913 relied on past experience, as well as various natural clues to help identify approaching weather.   Many of these clues were rooted at least partially within good science.   These natural clues were particularly important once you left port and were over the open lakes, too far away from shore to view hazard flags or pennants.  A few examples of natural clues include:

    • Red sky in morning, Sailors’ take warning.  Red sky at night, Sailors’ delight.               
    • Beware the bolts from north or west; In south or east the bolts are best.
    • Rainbow to windward, foul fall the day; Rainbow to leeward, rain runs away. 


Limited Wireless Communications

Wireless communications were available on the Great Lakes at this time, and were expanding rapidly with the erection of a number of wireless stations. Unfortunately, it appears that in all likelihood, most of the ships that sank during the 1913 storm did not have this new technology installed. The Weather Bureau issued weather warnings for the Great Lakes in advance of the 1913 storm.   As the storm raged over the coming days, these forecasts and warnings were updated. But without the wireless equipment installed on many of the ships, mariners would have no access to this updated information once they left port and traveled into the open lake.

The U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Navigation Publication, Important Events in Radio Telegraphy, showed the importance of wireless communications on the Great Lakes in a report on a 1914 storm (Just one year after the White Hurricane):

“November, 1914 — Great Lakes storms destroyed 19 vessels, none of which were equipped with wireless.  All vessels having radio apparatus installed received warning of the coming storm and sought safety.”  


What information and technologies are available to mariners on the Great Lakes today?

Accurate and Detailed Marine Forecasts

Mariners on the Great Lakes today have access to high speed, wireless satellite and cellular communications which allow them to access observed and forecast weather information in real-time.  As weather forecasts or conditions change, mariners learn about it very quickly. National Weather Service marine forecasts are updated at least four times per day and extend out to five days.  These forecasts are available in a variety of formats, including traditional text and graphic presentations.

Marine weather forecasts include detailed information on the following:

    • Sustained wind speed and direction
    • Wind gust speeds
    • Wave height
    • Wave period
    • Weather, including:  thunderstorms, dense fog, freezing spray, rain, and snow.

Marine “headlines” including Gale Warnings and Storms Warnings are still utilized but Gale Watches and Storm Watches are now issued which provide a greater lead time prior to the potential onset of these conditions.  Heavy Freezing Spray Watches and Warnings are now available to highlight the risk for heavy ice accumulation on ships

Advanced Forecasting Technology

Forecasters have access to both observed weather information, as well as computer generated guidance that allows them to monitor conditions across the Lakes in real-time and to more quickly and accurately assess how conditions will change.   Some of these observational and forecast tools include:

    • A network of highly sophisticated Doppler Radars (WSR-88D) maintained by NOAA.  These radars constantly scan the skies for developing storms, allowing mariners to see these storms as they form.
    •  NOAA satellites high above the earth’s surface send images of cloud structures, thunderstorms, hurricanes, and other developing storms to the ground.  The first weather satellites were launched in 1960.
    • Buoys and shore-based observations that report weather elements such as wave height, wind speed and direction and air and water temperature.
    • A volunteer network of weather observations taken aboard freighters, tug boats, and other vessels.  Vessel observations have increased dramatically in recent years which has helped to offset the otherwise limited weather observations over the Lakes.
    • Weather balloons are launched from several locations around the Great Lakes twice a day and fly to an altitude in excess of 20 miles above the surface to collect temperature, moisture, pressure, and wind information.
    • Sophisticated Numerical Weather Prediction (NWP) models perform a myriad of calculations based on observed weather conditions and known theory of atmospheric processes to create a forecast of various weather parameters.  Some models focus on the first few hours or first few days of the forecast while others extend out to more than 7 days.  Forecasters combine NWP output with current observed conditions, conceptual understanding of various weather patterns, and past experience to develop forecasts.



Infrastructure & Public Engagement

National Weather Service Office Gaylord, MI

NOAA Weather Forecast Offices are located throughout the Great Lakes region, and are staffed around the clock by highly trained professionals whose job it is to monitor and predict how weather conditions will change on the Great Lakes. NOAA Weather Radio (NWR)is a nationwide network of radio stations broadcasting continuous weather information directly from NWS offices. Official warnings, watches, forecasts and other hazard information is broadcast 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. NWR includes approximately 1000 transmitters, many of which are located around the Great Lakes and are easily accessible by mariners.

In addition to its scientific and technical capabilities, the National Weather Service has been working to raise awareness of the needs of the marine community and to better understand what information is needed to make operational decisions on the Great Lakes. This is being accomplished through:

    • Building relationships with a variety of external partners including the United States Coast Guard, Lake Carriers Association, the International Shipmasters Association, and local yacht and sailing clubs.
    • Familiarization Floats and ship visits which allow forecasters to meet with crews aboard various vessels to discuss weather and forecast impacts.


100 Years of Forecasting Improvements Have Made the Great Lakes Safer

If the 1913 White Hurricane were to happen today (“Now”), mariners would undoubtedly be safer than they were 100 years ago (“Then”). This added safety can be attributed to greater understanding, awareness, and communication of changeable weather conditions on the Great Lakes. These advancements have come about thanks in large part to our ever-changing technological capabilities.

The following table summarizes the technology advances that have occurred over the past 100 years.

Page content prepared by James Keysor (NOAA National Weather Service Meteorologist), Mike Bardou (NOAA National Weather Service Meteorologist), and Bruce Smith (NOAA National Weather Service Meteorologist).

Back to Centennial Anniversary Storm of 1913 main page.

NOAA Facebook NOAA Twitter RSS Feed for this site Email Us NOAA's Flickr Feed