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When Waves Get Big, Environmental Observations Also Rise

Posted by: Kristin Schrader October 25, 2017
Lake Michigan waves at Michigan City lighthouse following superstorm Sandy. October 29, 2012. Credit: S. Lashley, NOAA NWS.
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The south shore of Lake Superior realized extraordinary wave heights in the waning days of October. As Michigan’s Upper Peninsula experienced a particularly strong storm system, the Granite Island and Munising data buoys recorded waves of 28.8 feet, a record for recorded wave height in the Great Lakes. It was a big day for waves, but also for Great Lakes environmental observations, the business of recording and reporting extreme ecological events on the lakes.

“Events like these illustrate the importance of having a robust observing system in place,” said Kelli Paige, executive director of the Great Lakes Observing System (GLOS), the organization that gathers data from Great Lakes buoys and other sources to present back to researchers and the public. “It’s also worth noting that these buoys will need to be taken out of the water within a month or so, additional resources could help us establish a cabled observation system allowing this sort of data gathering year-round.”

In addition to the GLOS data products, members of the Great Lakes Observing System network have been capturing information and generating visualizations of the extraordinary activity. The large wind event prompted a flurry of data gathering and visualization activity. NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory captured the event in its Great Lakes Coastal Forecasting System. Dr. Greg Mann, science and operations officer at the National Weather Service (NWS) created this animation that is a particularly comprehensible illustration of the way waves were expressed during the event.

The National Weather Service office in Marquette, Mich. is physically located where the storm had some of its most dramatic effects. They routinely experience weather events that would put a chill over the bulk of Americans, and this storm was big, but not unexpected for the season. Still, the office pace changes when winds start to rise.

“While it is pretty hectic in our office during the event as we are monitoring observations and answering tons of phone calls, a lot of our time is spent fine tuning the forecast and messaging prior to the event,” Matt Zika, NWS warning coordination meteorologist explained. “As the models became clear that this storm would be comparable to some of our bigger fall storms of the past, our pre-event messaging ramped up tremendously.  This included a heavy presence on social media highlighting the potential impacts of the coming storm (tree damage, power outages, significant beach erosion with Lake Superior above average, and the dangers of being near the shoreline with 20-30 foot waves, etc), participating in conference calls with state officials so they understood the potential impacts for resource planning, preparing and sending enhanced packets of information to key decision makers in our local area (emergency managers, school superintendents, road departments, utility companies, etc.) and answering their questions.  Sometimes the days prior to the event are more hectic than the actual day of the storm.

“As the storm was unleashing it power, we spent a lot of time monitoring observations including all of the GLOS data aligning the observations with the forecast…making sure the event was unfolding as expected and adjusting the forecast as needed.  We usually deal with a lot of media inquiries with events of this magnitude.  We share observational data via social media driving home the safety and emergency management messages, and after the event, we spend a considerable amount of time sifting through all the data and summarizing it into an event review that is shared via the web and social media.”

There’s no rest for those who prepare the public, at least not at this time of year.

“With the potential for another significant storm (less wind but maybe accumulating snow) on tap for Friday into Saturday,” Zika acknowledged, “we start the process all over again.”

Outreach to the public is critical during storms of this nature. At publication search efforts are underway to find a couple who were swept from the Black Rock cliffs as they tried to photograph the unusually large waves.

Dr. Guy Meadows of the Great Lakes Research Center at Michigan Technological University noted the collaborative nature of reporting on the large waves. “It is a big GLOS success in many ways, all partners coming together to capture a really big Lake Superior storm.”

 

Links to some of the reporting done on the measurement:

WBFO – Great Lakes Record Largest Wave — Ever

TV6 Fox UP – Drivers Stop to watch Stormy Waves

MLive – Monster Storm brought Record Waves