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Rare Winter 'Seiche' Phenomenon May Impact Lake Erie due to Powerful Storm

2 months ago
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Residents along the eastern shoreline of Lake Erie witnessed an unusual rise in water levels that flood yards and roads this past weekend, while those on the western side watched dramatic drops as a strong storm system and arctic blast creates a little-seen winter event called a seiche (pronounced saysh).

Similar to storm surges during hurricanes that push walls of water ashore, seiches cause oscillating high and low water levels on opposite ends of enclosed bodies of water like Lake Erie.

When they happen in winter, heavy snow and ice often get tossed by the churning waves too, adding to the damage. Seiches as high as 16 feet have submerged homes and properties along the Buffalo waterfront.

This weekend’s expected seiche had Lake Erie's level projected to peak up to 7 feet over typical heights at Buffalo while falling 10 feet lower than normal at Toledo on the other side.

These dramatic fluctuations happen when high winds blow along the southwest-northeast axis of the lake, shoving water down the length until it sloshes back and continues rocking. Small ponds and lakes can also experience seiches on a smaller scale from the same wind set-up phenomenon.

While hurricane storm surge usually impacts only sections of coastline facing its brunt, seiche effects can inundate both shores of an affected lake or bay. In addition to flooding, oscillating Lake Erie water levels lift and throw floating ice chunks, increasing wave damage.

A deadly 2008 Buffalo seiche measured 16 feet from peak to trough. But the highest recorded event raised the lake’s level by 22 feet before retreating and unleashing a wall of debris and ice that temporarily dammed Niagara Falls in the early 1900s.


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