For Release: November 9, 2010
Moira Harrington, communications manager, (608) 263-5371, email@example.com
Chin Wu, University of Wisconsin-Madison engineering professor, (608) 263-3078, firstname.lastname@example.org
Madison (11/9/2010) -- The intense and dangerous wind storm and accompanying high waves the Great Lakes states experienced in late October is thought to be the same kind of storm that occurred on Lake Superior causing the fatal wreck of the ship Edmund Fitzgerald 35 years ago on Wednesday. A University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute-funded researcher is studying extreme waves in hopes of preventing future tragedies.
Extratropical cyclones are characterized by very strong winds carried over a long distance generating large waves. Buoys on the northern part of Lake Superior recorded waves as high as 27 feet in the recent storm. But the lake might have been even rougher during the Edmund Fitzgerald storm on Nov. 10, 1975, according to a scientific process called hindcasting, the opposite of forecasting.
Using a combination of observational data and computer modeling, scientists at NOAA’s National Weather Service and the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Michigan show that sustained winds were likely blowing at 50 to 60 knots, roughly 57 to 69 miles per hour. Winds of that velocity would have generated waves about 24.6 feet high.
Such rough conditions could have produced an individual wave 46 feet high, although “rare and unlikely,” according to the NOAA scientists. No one will know exactly what caused the demise of the Edmund Fitzgerald because all 29 crew members perished. However, computer models showed that one such wave – known as a freak, rogue or giant wave – occurred at the exact time and location of the ship’s sinking.
Freak waves are exceptionally large, steep and asymmetric and often occur in the Great Lakes, according to University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher Chin-Hsien Wu. He is currently investigating the conditions and locations prone to producing the dangerous waves, which can take down a vessel like the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Freak waves can also be dangerous to kayakers and recreational boaters. Wu is particularly interested in the potential for rogue waves to occur in the Apostle Islands off the north shore of Lake Superior.
“The occurrence of extreme waves is still a mysterious phenomenon in the field of fluid mechanics,” said Wu, professor of civil and environmental engineering. The Apostle Islands include a complex network of islands and shoals that under the right wind conditions are likely to produce freak waves.
Using funds provided by the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute, Wu is using a combination of wave gauge instrumentations and computer models to better understand the likelihood of extreme waves occurring at the Mawikwe Bay Sea Caves, a place that is popular, but also potentially dangerous, to sea kayakers who enjoy viewing the sea caves from the water. Since wave measurements are critical for safety, data must be transmitted in real-time via a website to alert paddlers to current wave conditions. The system was field tested in the summer and could be fully operational next year.
Improving knowledge of how extreme waves are created should prove invaluable to prevent further tragedies like the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Several commemorative activities are planned for tomorrow, including in River Rogue, Mich., near where the ship was built in 1958. Editors note: UW Sea Grant video of the Chin Wu research at the Lake Superior sea caves can be found at: http://www.youtube.com/UWASC.
Photo courtesy of the Kalamazoo Gazette, November 11, 1958.
Conceived in 1966, Sea Grant is a national network of 32 university-based programs of research, outreach, and education for enhancing the practical use and conservation of coastal, ocean and Great Lakes resources to create a sustainable economy and environment. The National Sea Grant Network is a partnership of participating coastal states, private industry, and the National Sea Grant College Program, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce.