Thursday, July 2, 2015


Today on Face Book, I advised my friends who ponder summer travel on Carolina beaches to consider Lake Erie instead, because "We don't have sharks in Lake Erie."

As a northeast Ohio newspaper columnist, I have never been asked about sharks in Lake Erie. But whenever tsunamis or tsunami warnings occur in other parts of the world, they do often spur my readers to ask if we ever have "tidal waves" here. And here's what I have told them:

WHILE WE HAVE NOTHING here that could accurately be called a "tidal wave" or tsunami, we have had smaller entities called seiches (pronounced "saysh" or "sesh-ay" or "sigh-sh", depending on where in the world you are discussing them).  Seiche (a French word that means "to sway back and forth") is described in one dictionary as an "oscillation of the surface of a landlocked body of water (as a lake) that varies in period from a few minutes to several hours, or sometimes two days."
Most seiches on our Great Lakes result from atmospheric or seismic disturbances that create huge fluctuations in water levels in mere minutes, and they arrive ashore without warning. The southern shore of our Lake Erie is one of the more seiche-susceptible areas among the Great Lakes, due to its shallowness and unequal depths. There have been more seiches than people might think along our Lakes, with many going mostly unnoticed because they come on shore with a water rise of little more than a foot, or even less

SQUALL-LINE SEICHES are particularly dangerous, and the results of one such event that many older people may remember was a monster wave that hit our southern shoreline in 1942, from Bay Village (west of us in Cuyahoga County) to Conneaut (east of us in Ashtabula County).

It struck in the seeming calm of pre-dawn moonlight on the first of June, hurtling to the beach from miles out in the water, killing seven people---four in our Lake County on the south shore of Lake Erie. Reports by witnesses, rescuers and officials estimated the wave to be 20 to 25 feet tall, roaring in at 80 miles per hour.

On a Perry fishing beach, the water picked up one fisherman at water's edge, smashing him into bushes more than 150 feet inland, and hurled seven others from the water into an on-shore ravine. None of these men died, even though the wave engulfed a 20-foot tall bluff.  Property and buildings were destroyed along the affected shoreline, with the worst damage recorded at Madison-on-the-Lake, where the high wave was followed within minutes by a six-to-eight-foot-tall wave. Meteorologists later theorized the event was caused by "sudden, drastic off-shore wind shifts that produced cataclysmic rises in water levels."

Unlike tsunamis, seiches generally move a lot more slowly, no more than 30 miles per hour. They may bring higher waves to a small or isolated shoreline and receive little attention from any but the local news, such as with a seiche recorded on June 6, 1954. That might well have been the one described to me during an interview some years ago with Jim Strand, a former chief ranger for Mentor Headlands State Park. The wave washed ashore in the early 1950s, at a time when Strand was on duty. "I noticed people were running off the beach," he recalled. "I was in the first-aid station, and I looked out and saw the wall of water. I got on top of a desk as the water came into the building... It left as quickly as it came."

 I FIRST BECAME AWARE OF (and interested in) such seiche phenomena in 1996, when I was interviewing two employees of our Painesville Water Plant in Lake County. They had compiled a 100-year history of the facility, and leading me on a tour of the plant, they shared a clipping that had been framed and posted on the wall of the plant's extension, built in 1971. The clipping told the story of the 1942 seiche. "Timing's everything," one of the men observed wryly. "If that wave had struck in 1971, it would have completely taken out this building."
Early writings about Lakes seiches have described a sudden recession of water before the large wave of water washes over the shore. People at the waterline might or might not notice that they can walk a bit farther to the water than is usual. (That effect, however, occurs to a dramatically greater degree with tsunamis).

Regional history of seiches along the south shore of Lake Erie includes a seiche at Buffalo, NY on Oct. 18, 1844. That great wave resulted from prolonged strong winds that pushed the water to one end of Lake Erie, and then the winds shifted suddenly to the opposite direction, creating a wall of water that smashed with great force over Buffalo's 14-foot-high seawall, drowning 78 people in the commercial and residential district at the waterfront. Other seiches were recorded along our southern shores in 1882, 1929, 1933 and 1947.

A more recent seiche, or at least a seiche effect, occurred in 2012 along our Lake Erie shoreline. Two days of strong winds forced the water from Ohio's shallow west basin of Lake Erie, near Toledo, toward the east. It lowered the water level some six to eight feet at the western basin and created an equal and opposite rise of water hundreds of miles to the east. Boats in the western basin were left stranded and then stuck in the mucky bottom of the lake, and when the water rushed back, the boats were over-run and destroyed.

(Seiches are also said to play a significant role in enhancing rip currents, and it's interesting in that regard to note several 2011 losses of human life in rip currents along our southern shores).

SO THERE YOU ARE! You don't need to worry about sharks in Lake Erie, and you won't need to worry about tsunamis. But if you must nurse a worry about something in Lake Erie, make it the seiches.
But I wouldn't lose any sleep over them.

---Regards from your blogger Rose Moore, writing from Lake County in northeast Ohio off the south shore of the Great Lake Erie.