Seiche on Lake Michigan

July 11th, 2011 at 10:56 pm by under Bill's Blog, Weather

Click the image to enlarge.   On July 4, 2003, seven people lost their lives at the Lake Michigan shore near St. Joseph.   A line of storms with strong winds crossed the southern part of Lake Michigan.  The storms caused a seiche (pronounced “saysh” with a long “a”).  A seiche occurs when the strong winds of the storms push the water from one side of a Great Lake to the other.  In this case (July 11, 2011) we had a strong west wind that pushed the water toward the Michigan shore.  The water “piles up” at the Michigan shore and the water level gets higher.  In Wisconsin and Illinois, the water level dropped.  As the storms push inland into Lower Michigan and the wind dies down at the lakeshore, the water starts to move back toward Illinois and Wisconsin.  The water can slosh back and forth for hours.  The retreating water creates strong rip currents that can carry swimmers away from shore into deep water.   This is a graph of the water level today (7/11/11 on the right part of the graph) at Calumet Harbor in Chicago.  It looks to me that the water level fell 8″ then rose about 28″.  Cort can correct me if that’s not right.  UPDATE: Cort sent me this article about the water retreating at Tunnel Park.  Think of the power needed to push that much water around.  A cubic foot of water weights 62.4 pounds.   Check out the full graphs here. Note that as the storm hit there was an almost instantaneous spike of rapidly rising air pressure, a smaller upward spike in humidity and a downward spike in temperature.  Remember, on those rare occasions when we get a line of storms with strong winds, you’ll want to avoid going back into Lake Michigan until we know that there either is not a seiche, or that a seiche that is occurring has ended and the lake has calmed down.  By the way, look at the SPC storm reports from Monday and you’ll see that the derecho thunderstorm outbreak went from NE Illinois and SW Michigan all the way to Maryland.

23 Responses to “Seiche on Lake Michigan”

  1. Dan says:

    This is very interesting! How often do we get a Seiche? Are they common?
    Seems that they are rare. It was also very interesting how those storms came through this am! Hopefully, everybody is doing fine and all are getting their power back! I feel bad for the family in Cutlerville! Never do I wish for people to get hurt when storms come. I only enjoy watching the clouds and the dynamics come together.

    1. Cort S. (Holland) says:

      They’re a little uncommon but not terribly rare. They happen whenever you get a good powerful line of storms crossing the lake, especially when the storms are north-south oriented like Lake Michigan is. Some of the most memorable (in my mind) storm-produced seiches on Lake Michigan include May 31, 1998; July 4, 2003; July 2, 2008; today, and maybe a couple more in the past few years that I can’t remember right now.

      1. Bill Steffen says:

        June 26, 1954 in Chicago…a ten-foot wave…8 fatalities: http://www.geo.msu.edu/geogmich/seiches.htm

    2. Skot says:

      I am to far away to see a seiche. Would be cool to see but oh well.

  2. Shae (Portland says:

    Wow, thanks for the link Bill. Thats a very interesting read. Kinda crazy to think about something like that happening around here to me really… would probably be pretty cool to witness!

  3. Shae (Portland) says:

    Wow, thanks for the link Bill. Thats a very interesting read. Kinda crazy to think about something like that happening around here to me really… would probably be pretty cool to witness!

  4. Paul says:

    Bill, great article. I notice this morning as the storms were approaching the Grand Haven area that the river began to rise in the channel. I don’t know if there is any link between this activity and the approaching storms or not. Just a thought.

    1. Bill Steffen says:

      I can’t say for sure, but probably “yes”. The water can start rising before the winds hit.

  5. Tim (Spring Lake/Fruitport) says:

    I’m curious if the storm in August of 2009 that leveled Norton Shores and Fruitport created a Seiche? I’m not sure how strong the winds were as they crossed the lake, but once they got onto shore, they sure were violent!

    1. Bill Steffen says:

      The Fruitport storm of 8/9/2009 was too small to have much effect on Lake Michigan. The really strong winds hit an area only about 5 miles wide. The storms yesterday created 35 to 80 mph winds along a gust front that ran from Ottawa County to the southern tip of Lake Michigan. Holland had 81 mph winds, Michigan City, Indiana had an 85 mph gust. In between the winds weren’t quite that strong, but for that 100-mile wide stretch from Ottawa Co. to Indiana, the average wind was probably gusting to 50 mph and that can push a lot of water compared to a storm that is only 5-10 miles wide.

      1. fixxxer says:

        I appologize for my actions against some of the children on here bill. Been a pleasure…keep in touch!

        1. GunLakeDeb says:

          I, the Queen Mum of Snowflakes, don’t take it personally when you grumble about *MY* snow ;-) You are only one of MANY who think we Snow Lovers are deranged….LOL!!! On our first snowfall, I will make a special Snow Angel just for YOU!

        2. Randy (SW Walker) says:

          Let it go, puppy. It’s over.

        3. Paul says:

          Oh my…some people don’t know how to stop.

        4. michael g (SE GR) says:

          Is that a resignation? FABULOUS!!

        5. Mr. Negative says:

          That’s too bad if it’s true. Even though it was made crystal clear by Cort, Paul, Tom, Indy, Laker, Randy, Hummer, Michael, and Skot that this is an “exclusive” blog. Please be sure to read and adhere to, the specific Personality Standards and Requirements. You are required to sound, think, and type in the same manner as the names listed above. Failure to do so will result in punishment from those whose opinions are sacred, and come from on high.

  6. GunLakeDeb says:

    We get mini-seiches, here on Gun Lake. The only outlet – and the point that keeps Gun at the same water level (give or take 12″) – is the dam on the SW corner of the lake. A strong SW wind *can* push the water away from the dam – and if it keeps up for too long – the lake level rises 6″ or so…. That doesn’t sound like much, but considering that many homes/cottages are built about 16″ above the lake water line means a seiche during the Spring High Water can flood people’s yards!

    At least we can still use the lake during our seiches – if you get “sucked over the dam”, you’re going to fall about 18 inches. ;-)

  7. Troy V says:

    Bill, I think you mean 1893 for the St. Joseph incident – not 2003.

  8. jeff says:

    Hey Bill, I’m sure you are correct, but I was always told a gallon of water weighs 8 #’s. Does it really take almost 8 of them to make a cubic foot. Of coarse maybe the 8#’s is wrong too.

    1. Bill Steffen says:

      A gallon of water is 8.3 pounds. A cubic foot of water is 62.4 pounds: http://www.fourmilab.ch/hackdiet/www/subsection1_4_2_0_7.html

  9. joe says:

    I have my answer to a question I’ve had for years. A 4-5 waved crashed the shores of Michigan in April of 1893.(see NYTimes article) Thanks Bill, Great Stuff !!

  10. Beth C. (West Olive) says:

    Bill, I had never heard of a seiche until you mentioned it recently. I’m sure that is what happened to me Sept. ’09. I was taking pictures at Wind’s Nest beach, standing near the grass away from the water. It was one of those extremely windy big-wave days. As I was looking through the lens, I suddenly noticed I was waist-deep in Lake Michigan. I looked for my dog who had moved further up the dune. I had no idea what was happening, but got the heck out of there. It wasn’t a wave. It was as if the entire lake had suddenly risen 6 ft. and just stayed at that level for, what seemed like a long time, but was probably only a few minutes, at most. I actually have pictures showing where the water was, how it was creeping further up and then I’m surrounded by the lake.

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