Did a Rogue Wave Sink the Edmund Fitzgerald?

“The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee. The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead when the skies of November turn gloomy.”

And turn gloomy they did exactly 35 years ago yesterday. On that fateful night, the Edmund Fitzgerald sank just a handful of miles north of Whitefish Point, the entrance to the safer waters east of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in Whitefish Bay.

I spent a day in Whitefish Bay during Labor Day weekend this year and visited the Great Lakes Shipwreck museum. While there, I got to see the actual bell of the wrecked ship that had been recently brought up from its watery grave. Learning about the ship, I was surprised to learn it was a giant, modern-day tanker made of steel and iron. For some reason, I always had pictured it as a giant wooden vessel.

Earlier this fall, there was a similar storm that was characterized by waves as tall as 27 feet in the northern part of Lake Superior. But 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 believe the storm 35 years ago may have been even worse. They estimate that winds likely were blowing roughly 57 to 69 miles per hour, which would have generated waves about 25 feet high.

But those are just regular waves. Due to a mysterious phenomenon in the field of fluid mechanics, every now and then a rogue wave will form, dwarfing all of the others. If computer models are correct, one such wave likely occurred at the exact time and location of the Fitz’s sinking, and could have been up to 46 feet tall. (Check out what I’m talking about on The Deadliest Catch below.)

Because these rogue waves are so poorly understood, danger remains for ships braving the big storms of the Great Lakes. But Chin-Hsien Wu is working on it. 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 these extreme waves. His research centers on the Mawikwe Bay Sea Caves, but the models he is working on could be extended to all bodies of water.

There aren’t any real discoveries to talk about, but I thought I’d share since I love the song, recently visited the wreck and just had the 35th anniversary of the tragedy. So enjoy!

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About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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