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5 Historic Storms That Hit Lake Michigan

Jul 10th, 2024

Living on the shores of Lake Michigan, you know the view isn't always sunshine and sailboats. This great lake, for all its beauty, can churn into a force to be reckoned with. 

Powerful storms have battered the lake’s shores throughout history, leaving a mark on the land and the surrounding communities. From the early days of Chicago to the modern metropolis it is today, these famous tempests have been among many to have shaped the Windy City's resilience. 

Here are some of the most violent storms to have pummeled Lake Michigan in the past two centuries. If you live in or near our luxury Chicago apartments, you may even remember the last two!

5 huge storms that hit Lake Michigan

The storm of November 11, 1835

We don’t know a whole lot about this storm (or series of storms), but we do know that some really bad weather occurred on November 11, 1835 and that it swept over all the Great Lakes region. 

We also know that at least 17 ships were wrecked, capsized or beached during that storm, and that four of them were on Lake Michigan — the Chance, the Bridget, the Sloan and the Delaware, all of them schooners.

The White Hurricane of 1913 

This winter storm was so furious that it was variously called the Big Blow, the White Hurricane and the Freshwater Fury by those who experienced the frigid blizzard!

Several factors played a part in the severity of the storm; the largest of which was the weather itself, which involved a weather phenomenon known as a November gale. Also called the November Witch or the Witch of November, this particular type of weather pattern involves cold air being drawn from the Arctic and relatively warmer air being drawn from the Gulf. When the two varying air masses inevitably meet over the low air pressure over the Great Lakes Basin, the resulting storms are powerful enough to cause hurricane-force winds over the already tumultuous waters.

The November gale that lasted from November 7-10, 1913 was the most destructive in Great Lakes recorded history up to that point. It brought hurricane-force winds, rain, sleet, snow, blizzards and waves to the entire region. The heavy winds destroyed 19 ships and left another 19 stranded, and the loss of cargo in the form of ore, coal and grain exceeded $1 million. Over 250 people were killed from either the cold, the shipwrecks or the high winds.

Though the storm was, by far, the major source of damage and death during this 1913 November Gale, it was also a lack of communication and preparedness that resulted in so much destruction, The U.S. Weather Bureau did not accurately predict or alert the public to the potential severity of the storm, and as a result people were not prepared to deal with the wind, snow, ice and cold. Other weather forecasters didn’t have access to the technology and information to properly predict the wind directions, so ships on the water were caught unawares by powerful gusts of wind. 

Overall, the White Hurricane of 1913 was one of the most destructive storms to hit Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes, and the aftermath of the gale drove people to more accurately watch and predict weather patterns in the area.

Armistice Day blizzard (1940)

This early-season winter storm, coinciding with the commemoration of the end of World War I (then known as Armistice Day), caught many Great Lakes residents by surprise. 

Packing heavy snow and winds gusting up to 80 mph, this November 11-12 blizzard totally paralyzed the region and made navigation nearly impossible, leading to numerous shipwrecks and vehicle accidents. On Lake Michigan, the bulk freighter SS William B. Davock was caught in the whiteout and went down with all 33 hands on board just south of Pentwater, Michigan. 

The storm's fury wasn't limited to Lake Michigan. Neighboring Lake Superior also saw its share of shipwrecks. By the time the storm subsided, it had claimed the lives of over 60 people on the waters of the Great Lakes, with the freezing cold and whiteout conditions causing chaos and additional fatalities on land, too. 

Yet again, the Chicago-based U.S. Weather Bureau was criticized for not adequately informing or predicting the severity of the storm, and a weather station in Minneapolis was upgraded so that the Chicago station wouldn’t be the only station in the region with storm-predicting abilities. 

The "Chiclone" (2010)

The name "Chiclone" might sound playful, but the storm that hit Chicago in 2010 was anything but. In fact, the October storm complex affected most of the East Coast and Midwest with winds and snow brought on by astoundingly low pressure, causing tornadoes and high waves all over the Great Lakes.

Fierce winds exceeding 78 mph ripped through the city, downing trees, damaging buildings and knocking out power for tens of thousands. The iconic Navy Pier in Chicago also sustained significant damage, with its iconic Ferris wheel losing several gondolas. Buoys on Lake Michigan recorded wave heights of 21.7 feet, whole ones on Lake Superior recorded ones as high as 26.6 feet! Almost 70 tornadoes were recorded touching down around the Midwest.

Superstorm Sandy (2012)

While primarily remembered for its devastation along the Eastern Seaboard, Superstorm Sandy's reach extended far inland, impacting the Great Lakes and the cities around it with high winds and waves. 

By the time the weakened Hurricane Sandy met with a cold front, it had morphed into a powerful extratropical cyclone. For Lake Michigan, this meant heavy rain, strong winds up to 70 mph and significant storm surges with waves measuring 22 feet high. Coastal areas, particularly those on the eastern shore, experienced significant flooding and the southern portion of Lake Michigan saw water levels rise by as much as 15 inches!

Part of living around Lake Michigan is dealing with the crazy weather that comes around as a result of the region’s unique meteorological activity. The lake effect brings all sorts of cold wintery weather to our shores and the vastness of the Great Lakes is the perfect tunnel for winds and rain to travel far and fast. The results are, as we all know, a lot of wild weather that we come to know as just another part of living here — these storms are the perfect example of that. 

Stay safe!

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Featured photo by Marcus Woodbridge on Unsplash

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives on Oahu in Hawai'i. She loves to travel, camp, spearfish and hike. She's also part of a super cool canoe club and is pretty decent at it. Colleen enjoys Star Wars and also not being cold ever.

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