'White Hurricane': Remembering the Great Lakes Storm of 1913

By Becky Kellogg
Published: November 13, 2013

1913 Great Lakes Storm

1913 Great Lakes Storm

A police officer poses in front of leaning power poles in Cleveland after the 1913 Great Lakes storm. (Cleveland Pains Dealer/Wikimedia Commons)

  • 1913 Great Lakes Storm
  • 1913 Great Lakes Storm
  • 1913 Great Lakes Storm
  • 1913 Great Lakes Storm
  • 1913 Great Lakes Storm
  • 1913 Great Lakes Storm
  • 1913 Great Lakes Storm

White hurricane. Freshwater Fury. Big Blow. Those are just a few of the phrases coined to refer to the Great Lakes Storm of 1913, the deadliest and most destructive storm to ever hit the Great Lakes region.

The storm struck in early November killing well over a hundred people and sinking dozens of ships on the Great Lakes.

The storm was a combination of two of the worst meteorological phenomena: a blizzard and a hurricane. Technically, the Great Lakes Storm of 1913 was an extratropical cyclone, caused by the convergence of two major storm fronts (see weather map in slideshow above). The lakes’ relatively warm waters fueled the storm. It created hurricane-force winds, massive waves and whiteout conditions.

“Meteorologists at the National Weather Service office in Detroit used a very innovative technique to go back and simulate this storm,” said Tom Niziol, winter weather expert for The Weather Channel.

“Using only surface weather observations because there was no upper air network at the time, they ran a computer model that showed wind gusts over 80 mph and waves as high as 36 feet on Lake Huron on the night of Nov. 9, 1913 when eight ships and 187 lives were lost.”

In addition sinking ships on the Great Lakes, the storm also brought a blizzard to parts of Ohio and Michigan. Cleveland was paralyzed for days after it was buried under several feet of ice and snow.

(MORE: Winter Weather Update | Winter Storm Central)

“It wasn't just the wind and waves that raised havoc with this storm,” said Niziol. “The air was cold enough to create a full-blown blizzard, reducing visibility so that ships could not even see the shore, and significant icing from the freezing spray weighed ships down to a point that they could not even navigate.”

Some of the ships that went missing during the 1913 Great Lakes Storm have never been found.

The storm led meteorologists to develop better forecasting and officials to develop faster responses to storm warnings and stronger construction of ships. 

“This is another example of how ‘perfect storms’ occur," said Niziol. :So many variables come together at one place and one time resulting in the ultimate storm which is much bigger and more impactful than the sum of its parts."

MORE: Best of Winter 2012/2013

New Haven, Conn.

New Haven, Conn.

A neighborhood near New Haven, Conn., is buried in snow in the aftermath of a storm that hit Connecticut and much of New England. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

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