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SS Edmund FitzgeraldNovember 7, 2000 — Shippers on the Great Lakes prepare to mark the 25th anniversary of the sinking of the freighter SS Edmund Fitzgerald as the region moves into its stormy winter season and the United States looks toward a more normal winter with its occasional severe wind and snow storms. This is the time of year when moisture from the still-warm Gulf of Mexico helps fuel development of low pressure systems in the lee of the central and southern Rocky Mountains that later collide with arctic air masses and ride the jet stream into the Great Lakes region. The relatively warm waters of the Great Lakes can cause these storms to intensify more than they might over colder ground. (Click image of SS Edmund Fitzgerald for larger view.)

Experienced Great Lakes mariners have long known that intense storm systems often move through the Great Lakes region in mid to late fall, and that November is the worst month for these storms. The storms are the most frequent and most intense just at the time when grain crops need to be hauled to market and raw materials such as coal and ore need to be stockpiled for winter. Ships on Lake Superior are more likely to encounter the strong winds that bounce storm waves off the shore and create "peak" waves of up to 39 feet that tower normal storm waves. A pair of these monster waves is suspected by some of having sent the Fitzgerald to the bottom of Lake Superior.

Lake SuperiorWhen the Edmund Fitzgerald left Dock #1 in Superior, Wis., with a load of 26,116 tons of taconite pellets (processed iron ore) on November 9, 1975, Captain Ernest McSorley was aware of a deepening storm system moving northward from the central plains. He knew the forecast was for the storm to move into Lake Superior. As the ship moved into the open waters of Lake Superior early that afternoon, NOAA's National Weather Service forecast called for east to northeast winds increasing to 25-37 knots during the night, then shifting to north or northwest at 24-40 knots on the afternoon of November 10. Shortly after the Fitzgerald left port, the Weather Service issued a gale warning for Lake Superior, forecasting sustained east winds at 34-48 knots beginning that night as the storm center moved into Iowa. (NOAA photo of Lake Superior.)

In a little more than 24 hours, the Edmund Fitzgerald went down, taking its 29-man crew 535 feet to the bottom of Lake Superior. Exactly what caused the Fitzgerald to go down may never be known.

The National Weather Service Forecast Office in Marquette currently has marine forecasting responsibility for Lake Superior. Information about the office's marine weather program, the Great Lakes and the Edmund Fitzgerald can be found on the office's Internet page at:

Since 1975, and especially as a result of the agency's recent modernization and restructuring, the National Weather Service has made significant change in the Marine Weather program. Great Lakes open water forecasts are now assigned to five separate Weather Forecast Offices. WFO Chicago, Ill. is responsible for open water forecasts for Lake Michigan; WFO Detroit is responsible for open water forecasts for Lake Huron and Lake St. Claire; WFO Marquette, Mich., is responsible for those forecasts on Lake Superior; WFO Cleveland, Ohio, for Lake Erie; and WFO Buffalo, N.Y., for Lake Ontario.

In addition, 10 WFOs have responsibility for providing "Near Shore" forecasts for all the U.S. shoreline along the Great Lakes. Those offices include WFOs Duluth, Minn.; Marquette, Mich.; Green Bay, Wis.; Milwaukee, Wis.; Chicago, Ill.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; Gaylord, Mich.; Detroit, Mich.; Cleveland, Ohio; and Buffalo, N.Y.

Relevant Web Sites
NOAA's National Weather Service Marine Weather Program

NOAA's National Weather Service

The Web page of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum is a resource for theories on why the Fitzgerald sank.

National Transportation Safety Board Marine Accident Report: SS Edmund Fitzgerald

Media Contact:
Pat Slattery, NOAA's National Weather Service Central Region, (816) 426-7621 ext. 621