There's a Type of Tsunami on the Great Lakes You May Not Have Heard of Before

Chris Dolce
Published: February 13, 2018

Meteotsunamis are a potentially dangerous hazard on the Great Lakes that can be destructive and deadly.

They are a type of tsunami, but instead of being generated by an underwater earthquake, the source is meteorological, which gives them their unique name.

Scientists explained this phenomenon in detail this week at an American Geophysical Union conference in Portland, Oregon.

"These are unusually fast changes in water level than can catch people off guard and inundate the coast, damage waterfront property, disrupt maritime activities, and create strong currents," described researchers at the conference.

Thunderstorms, which generate about 80 percent of meteotsunamis, trigger their formation through a rise in wind speed and a pressure change, said Eric Anderson of NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. This creates a wave which then moves along with the storm.

Anderson said that if the wave and storm move at the same speed, this can cause it to become larger and potentially destructive. The growth of a meteotsunami can be further intensified as it enters shallower waters.

Meteotsunamis events on the Great Lakes 1882-2015.

About 100 meteotsunamis occur on the Great Lakes every year, and most are small, according to Anderson. He added that higher, destructive meteotsunamis happen about once per decade, on average.

It should be noted that the impacts from higher-end meteotsunamis are not nearly close to the catastrophic earthquake-induced tsunamis observed in Japan in 2011 and Indonesia in 2004.

Lake Michigan and Lake Erie typically have the most frequent meteotsunami activity, according to Dr. Chin Wu, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The large majority of meteotsunami events on the Great Lakes have occurred in the late-spring and summer months, when thunderstorms are most active in that region. Anderson said meteotsunami activity has historically peaked around May and June.

The most recent deadly meteotsunami occurred on the Great Lakes on July 4, 2003. The deaths of seven people in Sawyer, Michigan, were first blamed on rip currents until it was determined a meteotsunami was the cause.

Anderson mentioned that several damaging meteotsunamis have occurred since then, including in 2012, 2014 and 2017.

Meteotsunami events can happen when there is no apparent weather danger nearby. Several people were killed in a 1954 meteotsunami on Lake Michigan in Chicago four hours after the weather system triggering the event moved through.

Anderson said that once a meteotsunami is generated it can "refract or reflect off of coastlines". That may lead to the meteotsunami becoming disassociated from the weather system that led to its formation, as illustrated in the Chicago example.

Model simulation of the 1954 Chicago meteotsunami. The meteotsunami (yellow band) in the upper portion of the lake moves southward while interacting with the coastline before impacting Chicago on the lower left part of the lake (orange and red shadings).

Meteotsunamis are not exclusive to the Great Lakes and occur around the world. 

The East Coast of the United States sees an average of about 20 meteotsunamis per year (1996-2016), according to Greg Dusek of NOAA. Those events are mostly small, he added.

A higher-end East Coast meteotsunami on June 13, 2013, generated a six-foot wave that injured three people on a jetty in New Jersey during otherwise calm weather conditions. 

Scientists hope that with additional research a forecast and warning system for meteotsunamis can eventually be developed in order to protect those potentially in harm's way.

Croatian scientists are working on a warning system for meteotsunami events on the Adriatic Sea, and U.S. scientists hope to build off their progress.

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

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