Hurricanes in Michigan???

Written by: William R. Deedler, Weather Historian
National Weather Service Detroit/Pontiac, MI
August 18th, 2004
Originally written September, 1999

At first glance, when one reads that headline, one might say, "What? Hurricanes here in the Great Lakes?? No way!" Of course you'd be right, no actual hurricane has ever been observed in Michigan under the true definition of a hurricane. The definition of a hurricane, according to the Glossary of Weather and Climate edited by Ira W. Geer, is as follows: "A severe tropical cyclone with maximum 1-minute sustained surface wind speed greater than 64 knots (74 mph) in the North Atlantic Ocean, Carribean Sea, Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern North Pacific off the west coast of Mexico to the International Dateline. West of the Dateline they are known as typhoons." Furthermore, the definition of a tropical cyclone is as follows: "A generic term for a nonfrontal synoptic-scale cyclone originating over the tropical or subtropical waters with organized convection and a definite cyclonic surface wind circulation." Clearly, neither definition applies in the Great Lakes area, although remnants of hurricanes that have become extratropical (loses its tropical characteristics) occasionally do make their way into the Great Lakes region.

Scanning over 80 years (since 1921) worth of hurricane track data suggests that remnants of a hurricane or tropical storm make their way into the Great Lakes region on an average of twice a decade, especially the southern Great Lakes area (see Table-1). Also, in the majority of instances, by the time they visit this region they have diminished to an area of rain with maybe some squally winds. There have been a few instances, along the way, however, that do bear mentioning, and ONE STORM in particular that screams for attention!

TABLE - 1
REMNANTS OF TROPICAL STORMS THAT HAVE AFFECTED THE GREAT LAKES AND SOUTHEAST LOWER MICHIGAN (SINCE 1921)
DATE (Storm's life cycle) DETROIT RAINFALL/DATES (Inches) MAXIMUM WIND (mph)
  10/16-19 1923 .55 - 10/18 SE - 22
  7/20-8/2 1926 1.11 - 8/1 E - 25
  8/27-9/3 1932 2.95 - 9/3-4 NE - 21
  9/10-22 1938 .23 - 9/21-22 SW - 20
  9/16-25 1941 Trace - 9/25 SW - 52 *
  9/1-6 1948 .82 - 9/6-8 N - 25
  9/27-10/6 1949 1.30 - 10/6-7 SW - 21
Connie - 8/1-8/14 1955 .69 - 8/13-14 W - 20
TD ** - 6/22-6/28 1960 .31 - 6/28 SW - 23
Carla - 9/3-9/15 1961 .13 - 6/14 W - 29
Candy - 6/22-26 1968 2.55 - 6/24-26 NE - 30
Hugo - 9/10-24 1989 Trace - 9/22-23 NW - 38
Opal - 9/27-10/6 1995 1.41 - 10/5-6 N - 38
Fran - 8/23-9/8 1996 .99 - 9/7 NW - 25
Isabel - 9/6-9/19 2003 0.25 - 9/18-19 # W - 33

* denotes officially at Detroit City Airport, but gusts were clocked up to 75 mph across the Metro Detroit area.
** TD - Tropical Storm
# Up to 2.50" reported along the St. Clair River

First off, under the "mention" category in 1932 (well before hurricanes were named), a hurricane that developed in the Carribean on August 27th, tracked northwest into the Gulf of Mexico, then generally north, across Alabama, eastern Arkansas, southeast Missouri, into southern Illinois and then from there, headed northeast across Indiana into Southeast Lower Michigan. The storm approached Southeast Lower Michigan late on September 3rd. A light to moderate northeast wind proceeded the storm on the 2nd and 3rd averaging around 11 mph with gusts into the lower 20s, hardly anything noteworthy wind-wise. The storm did however, pass right over Detroit, causing the barometric pressure to fall from around 30.20 inches early on the 2nd to around 29.60 late on the 3rd. Rain began to fall lightly but steadily early in the morning on the 3rd, but from mid afternoon into the evening, moderate to heavy rain fell and by midnight, over two and a half (2.55) inches was dumped on the Detroit area. Close to an additional half inch or so of rain was added to that on the 4th for a total of nearly three inches.

Another "mentionable" was odd from the start because of its timing, occurring very early in the season during late June of 1968 (only one other June system was found since 1921 to have affected the Great Lakes: the weak remnants of a tropical storm that moved from the Gulf of Mexico to near Chicago, June 22-28th, 1960). On June 22, 1968, Tropical Storm Candy formed off the coast of eastern Mexico and then headed north into southeast Texas, just north of Corpus Christi. She then weakened, headed north-northeast through eastern Texas and Oklahoma, central Missouri and Illinois, then she pivoted on a more easterly track across northern Indiana into extreme northwest Ohio, over Toledo. Candy began to influence Southeast Lower Michigan's weather on the morning of the 25th. A nearly steady rain, interspersed with a few thunderstorms, continued through the day and evening, depositing nearly two and a quarter (2.17) inches. More scattered, lighter showers fell on the 26th, adding another .38 to give a grand total of 2.55. Through it all, an east to northeast wind blew averaging 10 to 14 mph with gusts into the 20 to 30 mph range.

A more recent storm (and last under the mentionable category) was fairly impressive as it wound its way north out of the Gulf of Mexico, through Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and into Northern Ohio. She was known as Hurricane Opal and had a 10-day life span from September 27th to October 6th, 1995. On the evening of Oct 5th at 8pm, the remnants of Opal were located over the eastern Great Lakes. What was left of the "eye", or center of the storm, was well indicated on the NWS Doppler radar in White Lake (DTX). The radar showed the "eye" over Sandusky, Ohio moving north out over western Lake Erie. Light to moderate rain, with isolated areas of heavy rain, extended from Southeast Lower Michigan east across Southwest Ontario and Northeast Ohio. Spotty light rain first made an appearance in Southeast Lower Michigan earlier in the day, during the forenoon hours. During the afternoon, steadier rainfall developed with the heaviest rain (.54) falling between 5pm and 7pm. The rain ended just after midnight with a total of 1.41 inches falling from the storm. With the approach of the storm on the 5th, a generally north wind picked up and averaged ovr 15 mph with gusts up into the 30s (peak wind gust was 38 mph)

The most recent Hurricane remnants to affect the area was Isabel, which moved quickly through the Eastern Great Lakes on September 18-19th, 2003. Rainfall from the system was quite variable ranging from just a trace over far western areas of Southeast Michigan, to as much as 2 1/2 inches at local spots along the St. Clair River.

The Astonishing Storm of September 25th, 1941

Earlier, I mentioned "one storm that screams for attention", but maybe "howls" would be more appropriate. Before researching this project, I expected to find the above case scenarios, but not the following...

A tropical storm formed in mid September over the eastern Gulf of Mexico (off the coast of Florida) on September 17th, 1941. It pushed west across the Gulf, stopping only to make a loop in its track, well south of New Orleans. By this time it was a hurricane, intensifying briefly to a category #3 storm (111-130 mph wind) offshore as it took aim on eastern Texas. The hurricane made landfall on the 23rd near Freeport, Texas with an estimated wind of 110 mph, extremely high tides of nearly 11 feet and a barometer reading of 28.31 inches (959 MB). Further to the northeast, a ship just offshore of Texas City recorded a lowest pressure of 28.66 inches and winds of 83 mph. Other wind gusts were estimated near 100 mph at several locations near the hurricane's center along the Texas Gulf Coast. The hurricane quickly weakened to a category #1 (74-95 mph) as it made landfall and by the time the storm pushed on north to Houston, wind gusts had already dropped to 75 mph. Four lives were lost from the storm in Texas and property damage was estimated at $6.5 million (1941 dollars).

The storm continued to roar on its northward path through Texas and by 7 am on the 24th, it was located near the city of Tyler, over extreme northeast Texas. From this point on, the storm's last 36 hours or so really grabs ones interest for peculiarity as it tracked through the Mississippi Valley and on into the Great Lakes. From 7AM on the 24th to 7am the 25th, the storm shot northeast from Tyler to near Battle Creek, Michigan, covering close to 1000 miles in 24 hours! Thus, the forward movement of the remnants of the hurricane averaged 40 to 45 mph as it approached Southern Lower Michigan. As the storm tracked into the Great Lakes, it merged with a fairly strong cold front that pushed across the upper Midwest into the Lakes. The combination of the strong push of cool fall air, strong upper level dynamics and the remnants of the hurricane created quite a storm (not unlike the more common intense late fall cyclones that are seen in the Great Lakes). In addition, the track and speed of our "hurricane" brings to mind that of the "Panhandle Low" type of low pressure system in the winter (more information). While the speed of the system was fairly quick, it's not uncommon for hurricanes to accelerate northeast as they become extratropical and get "picked up" by the mid-latitude upper winds or jet stream. Yet, what was really unusual and noteworthy was the surface wind that accompanied the storm as it moved through the Great Lakes. By the time hurricanes make it this far north, they usually have blown themselves out, at least to the extent that surface winds are only gusting to, at best, 30 or 40 mph. Note the following, taken from the Detroit weather records on September 25th, 1941:

Windstorm: An intense tropical cyclone moving up from the Gulf thru eastern Texas (causing great damage in Texas), along the Missip. Valley and thence Newd across Ill & Mich, passing W & NW of Detroit with gale force winds and gusts to 65 mph from 10:18 AM - 2:30 PM & gusts to 75 mph 12:30 PM - 2:00 PM (see envelope back of book for newspaper clippings).

Most of the above noted news clippings show widespread wind damage to trees and power lines that would be commonplace in severe thunderstorms or a derecho. A derecho is a widespread windstorm consisting of a complex of thunderstorms that develop into a long-lived squall line. But there also were some unusual or freakish happenings (as the Detroit Free Press deemed them) as well. The following is taken September 26th, 1941, the day after, from the Detroit Free Press about the storm:

"River goes dry"

There were many freakish effects of the wind, including baring of the Detroit River "middle grounds" off Belle Isle when water was backed into Lake St. Clair. The southwest gale literally blew the water out of The Detroit River, reducing its level by three feet, and leaving hundreds of pleasure craft high and dry on the muddy bottom. Several yachts broke their mooring or were heeled over at the Detroit Yacht Club. Another odd effect was the noticeable swaying of Downtown skyscrapers as the full force of the gale struck. Office employees who left tall downtown skyscrapers, were later reassured by engineers.

The Free Press goes on to say that "shortly after noon, the wind blew steadily at 56 miles an hour, but a times gusts reached hurricane velocity of 75 miles an hour." Dozens of people were injured by falling glass from windows blown out or debris tossed by the wind. One woman was literally blown into a fire hydrant, suffering a possible skull fracture. Other reports of scattered damage to homes and businesses across the region were mentioned in the article. In addition, the fierce wind churned up giant waves on the Lakes, including Lake Huron into the St. Clair River where two barges were blown ashore from of the shipping channel, even after dropping their heaviest anchors. In Southeast Lower Michigan, Storm Warnings were posted on Lakes Huron, Erie and St Clair at 10:30, the morning of the 25th. Downed telephone lines caused a disruption of service and communication across the Great Lakes and elsewhere. The "dying" hurricane left a trail of damage from Texas clear up into the Great Lakes and Canada. The wind of the storm was equated to an intense fall low pressure system that hit the area on November 29th, 1919 in which the wind blew 67 mph in Detroit and to the "Black Friday" storm in November of 1913.

The fact that the hurricane, after weakening and becoming extratropical, traveled over a thousand miles and still was able to maintain that much wind is extraordinary in itself. As the storm moved into Southern Lower Michigan, its center tracked northeast across Battle Creek, Lansing, Saginaw and then out over Lake Huron and into Ontario. Judging by the lowest pressure readings at Detroit (29.25 inches) and Flint (29.17 inches), where the wind gusted to 69 mph, its central pressure was estimated to around 29.10 inches (about 985 MB). Quite impressive for the remnants of a "dying" hurricane in the Great Lakes in September. In fact, this is the second lowest pressure reading ever recorded in Detroit during the month of September (the first being 29.21 inches on Sep 29th, 1966, during the passage of an intense early fall low pressure system).

One can only make a random guess as to the chances of another hurricane-force wind storm, from remnants of an actual hurricane, hitting the Great Lakes again. Since it was the only one of its kind in the record books at Detroit since records began in 1870, it may take several 100 years before another similar storm affects the region!

Hurroncane

One final, extremely interesting "hurricane" that affected the Great Lakes must be mentioned to make this article complete. While this storm was not from remnants of a tropical system, its development over Lake Huron had many uncanny likenesses to tropical systems...

The first likeness was its timing, forming over the Great Lakes right at the height of the typical hurricane season, September 11-15th, 1996. What started as a typical core-cold 500 MB low pressure system evolved into a warm-core system as it settled over the relatively warm waters of the Great Lakes, in particular, Lake Huron. The low pressure system actually had moved past Lake Huron but then retrograded, or was "drawn back", to the relatively warm waters of Lake Huron. (Similar to the tropics, the Great Lakes usually reach their warmest water temperatures late August into mid September.) The storm then deepened and intensified at the lower levels of the atmosphere compared to aloft, typical of a warm-core low. It is believed that the warm waters of Lake Huron and associated low level instability over the lake were, to a large extent, the major contributing factors in this storm's evolution. The storm went on to form a broad cyclonic circulation, including the "spiral bands and eye", typically seen in hurricanes! At one point, the cyclone produced tropical storm force winds (39 - 73 mph) and some of the spiral bands even had rainfall exceeding 10 cm (better than four inches), causing some flooding.

On satellite, the storm looked very much like the classic hurricane picture:

This "Hurroncane" reached its maximum intensity during the day on September 14th, when a central pressure of 29.34 inches (993 MB) was recorded in the late morning by a Lake Huron buoy that fortunately was positioned, at one point, in the "eye". By 2 PM, that "eye" measured close to 20 miles across and had a ring of tall convective clouds surrounding it, strongly resembling that of an "eye wall". The convective showers encircled the "eye" well out over 300 miles. As the "eye" moved to the southwest (retrograded), over the aforementioned buoy, the surface wind backed from west at close to 35 mph to the southeast, and then diminished to near 10 mph. After, the "eye" continued to track to the southwest, away from the buoy, and the surface wind backed further to the northeast, and briefly attained tropical storm force. A similar scenario but with varying wind speeds, would also be expected at the ocean's surface if a tropical system retrograded from northeast to the southwest overhead. In addition, the air temperature rose from 13°C (55°F) in the spiral shower bands, to near 18°C (64°F), which was also the lake temperature, in the clearing above the "eye". The storm weakened overnight as the lake temperature dropped 5°C (9°F). The lower water temperature helped greatly in weakening the storm as a result of the lower latent heat supply.

For additional information on hurricanes, check in with the National Hurricane Center.

Background on "Hurroncane" was provided by a paper entitled "Hurricane Huron" by Mr. Todd Miner of Pennsylvania State University along with Dr. Peter Sousounis, Dr. Greg Mann and Mr. James Wallman of the University of Michigan. In addition, I wish to thank Ms Emily Grover, a senior meteorology student at the University of Michigan, for providing surface maps of the September 1941 storm.


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