Researchers ask for tsunami warning system on the Great Lakes

Wave Denis Churin/Shutterstock.com

While storms and floods often affect people who live along the Great Lakes, most residents of the area would probably consider themselves safe from tsunamis. However, researchers are now saying that a form of miniature tsunami has been known to happen on the lakes, and that we need to develop an early warning system for when they do.

These freakishly big waves, known as meteotsunamis, are estimated to happen on the Great Lakes about 100 times each year, but they generally go unnoticed because they usually occur in areas where there are no people nearby. While regular tsunamis are caused by earthquakes, meteotsunamis are caused by fast-moving storms that push water down and forward, creating massive waves—often on sunny days, and in waters that appear otherwise clear.

“Generally, they’re not as destructive as earthquake tsunamis, but they can surprise you,” Eric Anderson, an oceanographer National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Michigan, told the Toronto Star. He recalled an incident in 2012 on Lake Erie when, out of nowhere, three seven-foot waves appeared, sweeping three swimmers almost a kilometre into the lake and submerging a marina.

Fortunately, the swimmers were rescued, but the incident revealed to Anderson the importance of trying to understand this phenomenon. “All of us have the intuition when it’s rough water to stay out of the lake. But with a meteotsunami, any of us could be out there and (get) caught in a tough spot,” says Anderson.

He believes that an early warning system, using information from lake buoys and meteorological tracking devices, could make lakes safer, giving people time to get out when a meteotsunami is coming.

There have been an six major meteotsunamis recorded since 1929, including an incident in 1954 in Lake Michigan when eight people were pulled off a fishing pier by a giant wave and drowned.

While we can’t control the weather, we can choose to stay away from dangerous areas if we know what’s coming. As Anderson puts it, “The more lead time we can give somebody, the better,”