Why Lake Superior's legendary gales blow especially hard in November

Waves crash around a sea stack
Waves crash around a sea stack along the Lake Superior shore in Tettegouche State Park on Minnesota's North Shore on Nov. 30, 2019. The stack had been toppled by the following morning.
Dave Miess, Four Elements Photo Adventures

The gales of November on Lake Superior are legendary. They've inspired famous songs, most notably Gordon Lightfoot's “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

And there was the musical called “Ten November” which featured these lines in “Lake Song.”

"They call me Lake Superior, and many other names. They say my gain will be your loss."

On this Thursday, the gales attracted plenty of gawkers, including Rachel and Frank Lundeen, who live across the street from Lake Superior in Duluth.

They walked over with their dog to check out the storm.

"Huge waves. churning water. There's some surfers out here. It is a really powerful sight," said Rachel.

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“It's a visceral experience on a day like this. You see it, you hear it, you feel it in the ground underneath you," said Frank.

December storm kicks up big waves in Duluth
Lake Superior waves roll around Uncle Harvey's Mausoleum, also known as "the cribs," in 2019 near Canal Park in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

At the National Weather Service, Joe Moore is keeping an eye on the storm too.

"It's pretty incredible that we're seeing a very strong fall storm on the anniversary of the Edmund Fitzgerald tragedy,” he said.

Moore is the warning coordination meteorologist at the NWS Duluth office.

Incredible, he said, but definitely not a coincidence.

"This time of year, late October through most of November, we see these really powerful fall storms, these strong low pressure systems that kind of take their time approaching the Great Lakes," he said.

Blizzard conditions and big Lake Superior waves in Duluth
Emily Hindal of Burnsville, Minn., runs back to her car after getting drenched by a large wave just seconds after getting into position for a picture on Nov. 30, 2019 near the shoreline of Lake Superior in Duluth's Canal Park.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

These weather patterns typically originate in the southwestern U.S. They're called mid-latitude cyclones. They form during the transition between summer and winter.

"We see surges of cold air from the Arctic coming down from the north, we see a surge of really warm air from the Gulf of Mexico in from the south," said Moore.

That causes these low pressure systems to spin. As they strengthen, they ride along the jet stream into the Great Lakes.

"And when we see that on kind of the right path, we can get some really strong winds on the lake. And not only strong winds, but a long period of strong winds that can cause some really large waves to build on Lake Superior."

Those waves have sunk hundreds of ships in Lake Superior, mostly in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A great gale in November 1905 damaged or destroyed 29 ships and killed 78 people.

December storm kicks up big waves in Duluth
Lake Superior waves roll to shore close to the Duluth South Breakwater Outer Light in 2019.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Nov. 10 is kind of the sweet spot when it comes to big storms on Lake Superior.

John Swenson, a professor in the department of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Minnesota Duluth who grew up on Lake Superior, has looked at records of the biggest storms over the past 30 years.

"I find that the average storm, so in terms of time of the year, actually falls on about Nov. 10. So long story short, we get a storm like this, you know, on average on Nov. 10.”

Seeing and experiencing the vastness of Lake Superior every day is awe-inspiring, Swenson said. Humbling. And he said it’s not just seeing it.

"For me, it's more of the sound. I just I love the sound, the layering of sort of the deep roar of the lake, the waves, the periodicity of the waves, and then superimposed on that. The high frequency howl of the wind, I never grow tired of it."

Duluth Surf
A surfer rides a wave near the Duluth lift bridge
Courtesy Luke Kavajecz

At the mouth of the Lester River on the northeast side of Duluth, people cheer on surfers in black full body wet suits riding the frothing, churning waves.

Evan Lawrence, still dripping moments after walking out of the water, said he was surprised to learn it was the anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

“It's the anniversary? I didn't know. Hopefully I stay on top!" he grinned. Lawrence says the surf drew him out to the big lake.

“It's Mother Nature's energy and when you're out there and you're able to harness it a little bit it's pretty magic" he said.

There's also awe, reverence and respect expressed by people venturing to the shore of Lake Superior today.

There is any time of year, but perhaps most so when the gales of November, come blowing.