Wild Winds and Walls of Ice

Over the past few days, a powerful storm brought strong, damaging winds from the lower Midwest eastward – stretching from the southern Appalachians into the Northeast. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people have lost power across the country, numerous trees have been blown down, and many structures have been damaged. Gusts of 50 to 60 miles per hour were common across central to northeastern United States, and that theme was consistent here in the Capital Region of New York as well. The Albany International Airport recorded a peak wind gust of 61 mph, and Berkshire County, Massachusetts and Montgomery County, New York both reached wind gusts of 69 mph. The Albany International Airport’s peak wind gust broke the previous monthly record of 60 mph set on February 17, 2006. The highest peak wind report across the eastern US was reported in Snowshoe, West Virginia, where a gust of 88 mph was recorded!

Strong winds damaged a gas station in Bradley, Illinois on February 24, 2019. Photo Courtesy Bradley Police Department.

At Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, the park registered a 3-second wind gust of 124 miles per hour (mph), beating its previous record. At Mount Washington Observatory in New Hampshire, a gust of 171 mph was recorded, reaching a new all-time peak for the month of February. Winds averaged 110 mph over the day, with the highest 1-hour average of 138 mph.

The Hays Chart, which uses a needle and red ink to create a circular continuous chart of daily wind speeds, from February 25, 2019. By using the same instrument and methodology for more than eight decades, Mount Washington Observatory has created a consistent and detailed long-term record. Photo Courtesy MWO.

One of the most interesting features of this high wind event happened near the United States-Canada border in Fort Erie, Ontario on February 24.

Strong winds blowing ice over the retaining wall from the lake near Niagara River Parkway. Video courtesy Niagara Parks Police.

Strong winds helped to break up the ice in the lake and then forced that ice from the water’s surface onto land. An event like this one is known as a seiche, pronounced “SAYSH.” A seiche is a French word which means “to sway back and forth” and is defined by NOAA as a standing wave oscillating in a body of water. Seiches are typically caused when strong winds and rapid changes in atmospheric pressure push water from one end of a body of water to the other. When the wind stops, the water rebounds to the other side of the enclosed area. The water then continues to oscillate back and forth for hours or even days. A good small-scale example of this is if you have ever blown into a cup of hot soup – the liquid is displaced, and then sloshes back and forth.

This animation shows a standing wave (black) depicted as a sum of two propagating waves traveling in opposite directions (blue and red). Similar in motion to a seesaw, a seiche is a standing wave in which the largest vertical oscillations are at each end of a body of water with very small oscillations at the “node,” or center point, of the wave. Standing waves can form in any enclosed or semi-enclosed body of water, from a massive lake to a small coffee cup. (Courtesy NOAA National Weather Service)

Of the five Great Lakes, Lake Erie produces the most frequent and largest seiches because of its orientation and relatively shallow depth. Seiches are most likely to occur when strong winds blow from southwest to northeast. One of its most notorious events occurred in 1844, when a 22-foot seiche breached a 14-foot-high sea wall killing 78 people and damming the ice to the extent that Niagara Falls temporarily stopped flowing. As recently as 2008, strong winds created waves 12 to 16 feet high in Lake Erie, leading to flooding near Buffalo, New York. Seiches can also occur in many places other than the Great Lakes. Seiches have flooded Venice and St. Petersburg. Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana, is also known to routinely form small seiches after the passage of afternoon squall lines during summer months.

An illustration that ran in The News in 1914 shows the scene after the Julia Palmer, carrying 300 passengers, was driven into Buffalo bay by the force of flooding. Those trapped aboard sent a horse to shore with a letter attached to its mane, saying they had burned all the wood aboard the vessel and were “burning the furniture.”

Powerful wind gusts were measured across western New York in association with the most recent seiche event that unfolded February 24 into February 25, 2019. A gust of 80 mph was recorded at Oswego, 74 mph at Niagara Falls, 72 mph in Hamburg, and 69 mph in Buffalo. These strong winds forced the ice ashore and created mounds of ice 40 feet high in some areas that began to knock down trees and street lights. Farther south, ice mounds 25 to 30 feet high also came ashore, piling up on several lakefront properties in suburban Hamburg.

Ice at Mather Park under the Peace Bridge in Fort Erie, Ontario. Photo courtesy David Piano (@ONwxchaser)
There were reports of ice pushing at least 150 feet inland. Photo courtesy David Piano (@ONwxchaser)

Small seiches producing minor water-level fluctuations occur fairly frequently, but events of this magnitude are rare. The National Weather Service Office in Buffalo, New York issued a Special Weather Statement that warned of the “particularly dangerous situation” advising that extensive damage and downed power lines were very possible. Residents in Hoover Beach, New York were asked to voluntarily evacuate and the fire department went door to door to account for all residents.

Ice shoving onshore in Hamburg, New York. Photo courtesy Town of Hamburg Emergency Services

Although this is a unique and potentially once in a lifetime situation, officials are reminding citizens and visitors alike that it is imperative to stay off the ice piles. The stability of the ice is constantly changing, creating unstable and extremely dangerous conditions.

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