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Meteotsunamis: Monitoring the menace in the Great Lakes

Meteotsunamis, or waves that are produced by fast-moving thunderstorms, happen in the Great Lakes all the time. But occasionally, meteostunamis become dangerous, even deadly.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Add this impressive word to your repertoire: meteotsunami. It's a newer term to describe a Great Lakes phenomena that happens all the time.

Meteotsunamis work similarly to the larger tsunami in that they are fast moving, and you can't outrun them. But unlike a tsunami, which is triggered by seismic activity, meteotsunamis are generated by a sudden pressure change.

"A meteotsunami is a wave that is produced from a fast-moving line of thunderstorms that has a significant pressure jump and it pushes a wave through Lake Michigan or any of the Great Lakes," explained National Weather Service senior forecaster Bob Dukesherer.

The fast-moving waves used to be mistaken for another common phenomena - the seiche.

"A seiche will move up slowly on a beach," said Dukesherer. "A meteotsunami will come in at the same speed as a tsunami would."

These water phenomena happen all the time and are typically pretty small. However, West Michigan has seen bigger impacts, like the meteotsunami that hit Ludington in April.

"We think what occurred in Ludington was probably on the order of eight feet on the coast," added Dukesherer.

There have been deadly incidents in the past. Morning thunderstorms passed over Lake Michigan in June of 1954. A ten-foot wave raced up the sandy shores of North Avenue beach in Chicago, killing eight people.

The west side of Lake Michigan has experienced tragedy from meteotsunamis too. Independence Day of 1929, nine people were swept to their deaths.

So what is being done to warn beach-goers about these powerful waves?

"The Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research pushed money forward to put pressure sensors on existing buoys," said Dukesherer. "The pressure jump is what really creates the wave. The force of the atmosphere is pushing down on the lake and creating a full column wave moving through the water."

The pressure sensors are already being installed and more will come next spring.

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