Seiche: Lake Erie 'tsunami' swamps Lake County marinas this past weekend

CLEVELAND - 5/31/12 9:00 pm UPDATE: According to National Weather Service Meteorologist Kirk Lombardy: On Sunday, May 27, 2012, between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., "A 7-foot seiche wave crashed over the break wall and swept some children out into the lake over the break wall as the water returned back to the lake. The kids were rescued by a neighbor on a jet-ski. Madison Fire & Rescue checked the kids out. They are OK."

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Weekend beach-goers were startled by Lake Erie's version of a tsunami this past weekend.

On Sunday, between the hours of 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., a large wave, known as a seiche sloshed onshore in Lake County.

The seiche, also known as an edge wave, was reported along the Lake Erie shoreline from Madison to Perry to Fairport Harbor. Here, water levels reportedly receded and then rose several feet in just a few minutes time. The seiche caused flooding in the Perry marina and along the shore as the water rose rapidly after receding. Rapid falls and rises were also noted in the Grand River boat marinas.

An edge wave can occur on any of the Great Lakes but is most common on Lake Erie, because it is shallow. The phenomenon is caused by high winds and sudden changes in air pressure. High winds from low pressure systems or thunderstorms can pile up water on the downwind end or side of the lake. This happens when strong winds push the water towards a shoreline. Water levels away from the wind often drop drastically. When winds blow strong out of the southwest, water levels in Buffalo increase, while water levels near Toledo and the Lake Erie Islands drop drastically. But, once the wind subsides, the water rushes back to where it came from in the form of a large wave or surge.

In Sunday's case, these strong winds were caused by severe thunderstorms that traveled east across Lake Erie close to the Canadian shoreline. The strong outflow winds piled water north and east of the storms. Once the storms passed, the water was then forced back to where it came from ahead of or along side the motion of the storms.

The water in a seiche moves extremely fast. This causes large waves to inundate the shoreline. It is similar to a storm surge associated with hurricanes on the ocean but on a much smaller scale. Sometimes, strong winds occur when no severe storms are nearby. The resulting seiche often catches shoreline dwellers by surprise. Those that experience the phenomenon say it is just like a tsunami wave that comes out of nowhere. Ohio is no stranger to these types of waves.

Large waves of 10 feet or more have been reported throughout Ohio history. In 1942, two seiche waves unexpectedly battered the Ohio shore between Bay Village and Conneaut. Madison-on-the-Lake received the worst of the waves. The first wave ranged between 4 and 20 feet, and the second, following 15 minutes later, was 6 to 8 feet high. The phenomenon killed seven people.

In 1954, a large edge wave affected southern Lake Michigan. Ten-foot waves struck North Avenue pier in downtown Chicago, Ill. Fishermen were swept off the pier. While many were rescued, eight people lost their lives.

The National Weather Service in Cleveland is looking for anyone who experienced the edge wave this past Sunday. If you did, please email us the NWS at nwscle@noaa.gov . If you have pictures or video, please send them to the same email address.

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