Words on Weather & Climate — November 4, 2010

The Great Lakes Storm of 2010


Meteorologist Craig James, new Squire columnist

The major storm that affected much of the United States the last week of October was certainly one for the record books, but given its intensity, I think it produced far less damage than was expected.

The storm first impacted the West Coast with very heavy rain and high winds, and this may be a prevalent pattern over the upcoming winter for that area of the country. Coastal areas received four to eight inches of rain from the system and a lot of 40-50 mph winds. Waves reached 22 feet off the Washington Coast, none of which is all that uncommon for a strong Pacific system. The strong jet stream did help produce wind gusts to 132 mph at Squaw Peak northwest of Lake Tahoe, but that was at an elevation of 8,700 feet.

The weather computer models did a very good job of forecasting how the storm would reorganize over the central plains and become a huge and very intense system as it headed toward the western Great Lakes. Barometer readings were forecast to fall to record low levels in the center of the system and that is exactly what happened.

On Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 27, a barometer reading of 28.21 inches was reported in north central Minnesota, making it the lowest pressure reading on record for any storm in the interior of the country. Hurricanes and nor’easters have had lower pressure readings, but no storms over land in the center of the country have had readings this low. The blizzard of 1978 had a slightly lower reading of 28.05 inches when it was over Lake Huron but not when it was over land.

Since a barometer reading this low is usually associated with a category three hurricane capable of steady winds of 111 to 130 mph with gusts to 150 mph, it was surprising the winds were not stronger with this system. Peak winds throughout the Plains and Great Lakes were generally around 40 mph with gusts to 50-60 mph. There were a few gusts between 70 and 80 mph but not many. In Michigan, a gust to 71 mph was reported near Ludington, a gust to 74 just northwest of Traverse City and a gust to 78 occurred near Sault Ste. Marie.

I think the size of the storm was the main reason for the wind speeds produced by this storm. When an ice skater pulls in his or her arms, that person can spin faster than when the arms are extended. This storm was spread out over such a large area it couldn’t produce the same winds of many smaller storms. Waves did reach 26.6 feet on Lake Superior, but the storm that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975 had 35-foot waves with 100 mph gusts.

There were 81 reports of tornadoes as the cold front with the storm raced east. Our area was under a tornado watch for the first half of the day with several tornado warnings issued. However, not only were there no tornadoes reported in our area, there were none at all in our state. I think this is a case where modern technology in the form of Doppler Radar may have let us down. The radar picked up rotation in the low levels of the atmosphere, but none of it reached the ground. The old radars would not have seen this rotation and tornado warnings probably would not have been issued.

Another problem with the tornado warnings is that the National Weather Service now issues polygon-shaped warnings that only cover parts of counties, not the entire county. This is a good thing since it really pinpoints the area likely to be affected by the storm. But the emergency managers in most all counties in our state can only activate the sirens for an entire county or none of the county. So in this case, the tornado warnings were never in effect north of I-96 but the sirens still blew in Plainfield Township, Rockford and Cedar Springs.

This had the effect of severely disrupting business and schools as well as scaring the daylights out of people who were actually not in the warning area. It is a problem that can only be fixed with updated emergency sirens, which of course will cost money most localities don’t have at the moment.

So it was a big storm, indeed a record breaker, but fortunately it didn’t produce nearly the damage many smaller and less intense storms have produced. But when the “Gales of November” come early, it may turn out to be a very active winter. 

Craig James has been retired since July 1, 2008, after 40 years of broadcasting television weather. He was chief meteorologist at WZZM-TV for 12 years and chief meteorologist at WOOD-TV for 24 years. He is a graduate of Penn State University, where he received a Centennial Fellowship Award. He was also honored as a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society.

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The Squire has been Rockford’s free weekly newspaper since 1871. Our loyal readership includes over fifteen thousand homes in the Rockford area, including the affluent Lakes area of Lake Bella Vista, Bostwick Lake and Silver Lake; Belmont, Blythefield, as well as Algoma, Courtland, Cannon and Plainfield Townships. The Squire is distributed through the U.S. Post Office every Thursday. We also deliver to in-town businesses and homes with paper carriers and news stands in our grocery stores and over thirty local shops.