Tsunamis on Lake Michigan? They’re more common than previously thought

Jan 4, 2017

A model simulation of the meteotsunami that struck Chicago in June 1954.
Credit Adam Bechle

Tsunamis can devastate communities along the oceans. The giant waves are often triggered by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. But scientists say tsunamis are also a common occurrence on the Great Lakes. 

These waves aren’t nearly as big as the ones on the oceans, but can be deadly. A tsunami reported to be 10-feet high drowned seven people on a Chicago pier in June 1954, says University of Wisconsin researcher Adam Bechle. 


Tsunamis happen on the Great Lakes about 100 times a year on average, according to a study co-authored by Bechle and released in November. 

“We’re talking about a rise and fall in the lake of about a foot or more that happens over the course of a few minutes, up to an hour,” Bechle says. “So these are unusually fast changes in the water level and they can catch people off guard.”

Credit Adam Bechle

“We’ve seen reports [about tsunamis] that are about a foot tall that have actually swept people out into the lake,” Bechle says.

Bechle says wind and pressure changes create tsunamis when fast-moving storms travel over the lakes. He calls the phenomena ‘meteorological tsunamis,’ or ‘meteotsunamis.’

Bechle says he plans to work on developing formulas for predicting when meteotsunamis will strike in the future.