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On Air: Seiche Events on Lake Erie
Great Lakes Coastal Processes and Erosion - News


Roy Widrig, Great Lakes Coastal Processes and Hazards Specialist, E: rlw294@cornell.edu, P: (315) 312-3042

Oswego, NY, March 3, 2022 - "We have been hearing a little bit more about seiche in recent years, especially with these really heavy wind events that we're getting on Lake Erie," says Roy Widrig, New York Sea Grant's Great Lakes Coastal Processes and Hazards Specialist.

Widrig spoke with WDOE News Director Dave Rowley about this and other coastal processes topics during this recent visit. 

WDOE 1040 AM / 94.9 FM's "Viewpoint" program, which is broadcast in the greater Syracuse and Oswego regions. 

Viewpoint airs on WDOE Monday through Friday at 8:45am. Dave Rowley has been handling the hosting duties for more than 20 years, interviewing local, county and state elected officials. Community groups are also featured on the 15-minute live interview show. Listeners email their questions to Dave, who includes those inquires in the interviews.

You can also listen to the entire "Viewpoint" program featuring Roy Widrig of New York Sea Grant ...

If you don't see the player above, it's because you're using a non-Flash device (eg, iPhone or iPad). You can download the mp3 file by clicking here (mp3). It may take a few minutes to download, so please be patient.

Speaker1: [00:00:00] It's time for Viewpoint. Here's your host, Dave Rowley.

Speaker2: [00:00:09] And welcome to Viewpoint. Today, we have a live line guest, Roy Widrig. He is a Coastal Processes and Hazards Specialist with New York's Sea Grant. And Roy, thanks for joining us today. And we're here to talk a little bit about seiche [00:00:30] events on Lake Erie. And a lot of people have probably heard this in the weather forecasts at times during the course of the year, but maybe you should sort of explain what is a seiche? 

Speaker3: [00:00:46] Okay. So, yeah, I think we have been hearing a little bit more about seiche in recent years, especially with these really heavy wind events that we're getting on Lake Erie. What happens during a seiche is we get these long, strong winds [00:01:00] that blow across Lake Erie. So they start down towards Toledo and they blow and they blow and they blow and they pile up a lot of water on the eastern end of Lake Erie. When that happens, the waves are usually pretty large. So, you know, 10 to 15 foot waves, they're pushing up onto the shoreline and hitting the shoreline and the wind behind them. Often 30, 40, 50 miles an hour is blowing a lot of that water from the lake up onto the shoreline. It causes a lot of erosion and a lot of flooding.

Speaker2: [00:01:28] Yeah, we've seen a lot of that [00:01:30] here along the Chautauqua County shoreline, the city of Dunkirk. There was a lake wall that was heavily damaged and it was one during one of these major wind events and I believe there was a seiche.

Speaker3: [00:01:49] Yes. So there was a seiche, a pretty significant seiche and it was Halloween the night of Halloween, I think November or October 2019. [00:02:00] Yeah. Then there was there was a couple more there was one in the in the early winter of 2020. And I think there was at least two that happened over this winter as well. So they're they're getting pretty frequent and they are tending to cause a lot of damage to the shoreline structures such as the lake walls, break walls, you know, rip, rap. And in a lot of cases, these are the events that we see that spray the, you know, five, six, seven inches of ice onto people's homes as well. [00:02:30]

Speaker2: [00:02:30] So, Roy, what what makes Lake Erie particularly suited for the development of seiches?

Speaker3: [00:02:39] So Lake Erie has this kind of southwest and northeast angle to it. If you start down at Toledo and follow it up to Buffalo, and that just happens to be the general direction of the prevailing winds in winter. So when we get years in which it doesn't always happen in the winter, but when there's not a lot of ice, a [00:03:00] lot of that wind just builds up, builds up, builds up. And it's just more frequent that it happens on Lake Erie because of the way that the lake is oriented east to west, but also it's really shallow on the eastern edge. So when those waves are coming from the west, they're they're breaking a lot earlier and there's nowhere for them to go. So they end up on the shoreline and they cause the station event now on the western part of the lake over in Toledo, they'll actually see about a five foot, sometimes 5 to 8 foot drop in their water level. [00:03:30] So they'll have boats stranded. They'll have docks that are standing in mud while we here on the eastern edge of Lake Erie, are often dealing with floods because of this.

Speaker2: [00:03:41] So any reason perhaps that we're seeing more of these seiches developing is is climate possibly climate change part of the problem?

Speaker3: [00:03:57] It is. I think what we're seeing is we're [00:04:00] seeing more frequent wind events. You know, it's always been windy on eastern Lake Erie. That's not anything that's new to anybody, but it's these events are becoming stronger and more frequent. So on top of that, there's also much less ice in the winter. And usually the ice would, you know, be a few hundred feet off the shoreline. Those seiche waves would come in. They break up the ice on the edge, but they wouldn't really have an impact on the shoreline. Over this year, [00:04:30] we barely had any ice at all. So when that ice isn't there because of the warmer temperatures, the more liquid precipitation. So the freezing precipitation that we're so used to out here. It's not there to break up those waves. So those waves end up on the shoreline. So it's part of not just so much that they are more frequent, but we're also seeing them a lot more because they are so much closer to people's homes and roads on the on the side of the shoreline.

Speaker2: [00:04:59] I know [00:05:00] Van Buren Point, just west of the radio station here we're not that far from Lake Erie. I know they've seen a lot of property damage from some of these seiches and and high lake levels. What can people do? What can property owners do to perhaps mitigate some of this?

Speaker3: [00:05:25] Well, it's going to be hard to deal with this in the future. I'm going to say that right [00:05:30] now. This is probably going to be something that's not just going to go away. But there are ways to prepare your properties to be able to deal with them a little bit more. What we see on Lake Erie, there's a lot of vertical concrete walls which are not they do not take the force of the waves as well as sloping, broken up type walls, such as like a rock rip rap piles or longer stretches of natural beach. But people are on top of the shoreline. So it's not like [00:06:00] we're going to ask everybody to move their houses, you know, 20 or 200 feet inland. But there are things you can do. Like if you have electrical issues from the flooding, you can actually move up a lot of the electrical appliances and outlets and everything in your house so that when the house does flood, it's not going to be affected as much that way. And a lot of what I see is just a problem with the drainage on properties. So when these waves come up, their crashing the shoreline, they splash gallons and gallons and gallons [00:06:30] of water onto the shoreline and if they hit the walls when they're trying to get back the water is trying to get back into the lake, and there's nowhere for it to go. So the lawn ends up flooded and saturated. So what we see a lot is that people can improve the way that they're mitigating the water on their property just by improving their drainage. Often people will say, Well, I have a lot of drainage on the property and we take a look at it and it'll be like a crushed drainpipe, or it'll be full of sand and gravel and rocks that get washed up. During the seiche event, they kind of clogged the pipes [00:07:00] that drain the properties.

Speaker2: [00:07:02] Now, maybe you can sort of explain property owners can actually look at requesting a virtual site visit with you. Tell us about that process.

Speaker3: [00:07:17] Right. So I actually cover all of New York State. So I cover Lake Erie, Lake Ontario. So it's a little bit easier for me to talk to people well before I had well before the site visits necessary. And [00:07:30] so a couple of years ago, I decided to make these virtual site visits where it's kind of a first step in getting a consultation for the properties. So then you just, you know, you find your property on the map, you select it, you write up a brief summary of what kind of issues you're dealing with. I'll take a look at it. I ask for uploaded pictures just so I have a better idea. But then I look at the local geology in the background. So you guys, you know, don't have to hear me going through all [00:08:00] this stuff. And then I kind of prepare myself more for the meetings with the property owners. So I go into it knowing where they are, what their problems are, what kind of events they're associated with, whether it is a seiche event or if it's just regular sunny day flooding or anything like that. And then we we kind of provide the baseline for that conversation. And too if people are interested in that, they can go to our website. Well, my specific website through New York Sea Grant [00:08:30] is nyseagrant.org/glcoastal and sea is spelled out. So that's nyseagrant.org.

Speaker2: [00:08:39] Okay. And we'll post more information about this on our website as well. So kind of spread the news about this type of service. And really, are you hearing from a lot of property owners along Lake Erie in this area? [00:09:00]

Speaker3: [00:09:00] Yes, I am, too still a bit of a troubling amount as well. When I first started this job, I was during the floods on Lake Ontario, 2017, 2019. So pretty much all my attention was there. But then with these seiche events in the last couple of years on Lake Erie, it almost completely shifted focus. The virtual site visits that came in and was like 100% Lake Ontario. Then all of a sudden it was 75% Lake Erie and just a little bit of Lake Ontario. So there has been a lot of [00:09:30] attention going to Lake Erie right now. And that's something we continue it's something we plan to continue to do into the summer, getting out there and talking to the Lake Erie residents and trying to help them deal with these things more efficiently and much, much more smarter.

Speaker2: [00:09:46] Can anyone you know, when you hear about a a seiche in the forecast, is there anything that people can do, you know, to try to prevent damage [00:10:00] from happening, you know, when you hear about it or is there enough lead time to do anything?

Speaker3: [00:10:08] Yeah, usually we'll get about 2 to 3 days of lead time. So we know that the winds are coming. We know that there's a good chance that they're going to be aligned with the lake in a certain way. So I want to just you know, usually when you get those weather service warnings on your phone, pay attention to them because they are very important. They will often tell you how big the waves are going to be with a very [00:10:30] good degree of accuracy and the frequency of the storm, how long it's going to take. And you know what you can do about it. But like, if you want to prepare your property before one of these storms, one thing I try to tell people is to make sure everything is secured because the waves and the wind will take everything away. That includes garbage cans, even propane tanks. We've seen propane tanks pulled off of the structures. We don't want to see that happen because that's very dangerous. But also boarding [00:11:00] up any boat, boathouse, doors, covering that, you know, those sheet metal doors to make sure that they're not seriously damaged and and sometimes covering up windows with plywood or shutters just to make sure that, you know, if a rock gets thrown up there, it's not going to end up in your living room or kitchen.

Speaker2: [00:11:17] Now, how can people get more information about seiche events? I understand that you actually have a factsheet on the website. [00:11:30]

Speaker3: [00:11:31] We do have a fact sheet on our website. I'll say it again it’s nyseagrant.org/glcoastal. It's a four page factsheet, so it's a really quick one. It details the process behind what causes the seiche. Some some historical seiche events that have happened south of Buffalo all the way down to the Pennsylvania border and how impactful those have been in the past. It [00:12:00] gives a little idea of if we're going to see more frequency and destruction from these in the future. The answer is probably yes, but also kind of gives residents a little bit of hope of like there are ways that you can, you know, make your property more resilient to it as well. So there are some details on that that I don't really have time to get into right now.

Speaker2: [00:12:23] Right. Right. We got maybe a minute left, Roy, maybe some thoughts as we try to sum up [00:12:30] today's discussion on seiche, seiche events on Lake Erie.

Speaker3: [00:12:38] Yeah. So one thing I want to say is it's been a rough few years and it's totally understandable of shoreline residents are frustrated with what's going on. The lake level has been very high and that has made these much more intense. We're looking better for lake levels. So I'm hopeful that in coming years, especially 2022, 2023, [00:13:00] the impacts of these seiche events are going to be lessened. But we do have to keep an eye on the lake levels and be prepared for when they do go up again because it is a cycle. It's going to go up, it's going to go down. There's going to be good years and bad years.

Speaker2: [00:13:15] Well, Roy, thanks for joining us today on Viewpoint. We really appreciate it.

Speaker3: [00:13:21] Sure. No problem. Happy to be here. 

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