Almost a century ago, two intense storms merged to form a massive, deadly blizzard that ravaged most of the Great Lakes — and almost everything in, on and around them. The hurricane-force winds were so violent that the storm killed more than 200 sailors and caused millions of dollars in damages.
That tragedy, the Great Storm of 1913, stands as one of the defining moments in Michigan’s weather history.
Alongside other Michigan weather history events, people can reexamine that storm in the Michigan Historical Museum’s upcoming exhibit, “Lake Effects,” set to debut Oct. 5.
One main feature of the exhibit, which will run until August 2014, is a collection of artifacts recovered from one of the 19 ships destroyed in the storm.
“We’re lucky to have the artifacts. It was one of the most destructive storms on record in the Great Lakes,” said museum curator Maria Leiby. “Events like that really show you what earlier residents, without the resources and technology we have now, were up against.”
Appreciation of the state’s weather history and the power of weather is key to grasping the reality of living in Michigan, said Paul Gross, Detroit meteorologist and author of “Extreme Michigan Weather” (University of Michigan Press, $24.95).
“Some people probably have the idea that extreme weather doesn’t happen here,” Gross said. “The Pure Michigan campaign does a pretty good job of showing the purity of the pleasant Michigan weather, but we also had the last tornado to kill over 100 people until Joplin, Mo. a couple of years ago.”
“I guarantee that if you run across someone who lived in Michigan during that time, even if they weren’t in Flint, chances are they still remember it pretty vividly,” she said. “It was devastating.”
Severe weather events like that may remind the public to put their gripes into perspective.
“Take the Heat Wave of 1936,” Leiby said. “People were complaining about some of the hot days we had in summer last year. But can you imagine 100 degrees with no air conditioning in your car, or a climate-controlled workplace?”
“Lake Effects” will be the first major, comprehensive weather exhibit in more than 25 years at the museum, Leiby said. It also aims to connect weather to the Michigan identity.
“We’re going to be displaying things that remind us of beautiful summer days in Michigan with picnics and the beach,” Leiby said. “That’s a large part of our weather appreciation, too.”
From maple syrup pans to ice-fishing shanties, the goal is to show just how deeply the weather seeps into our collective identity.
“This will help people understand our resources and assets in our climate,” Leiby said. “And I hope it reminds people that even though we have so many ways to avoid the weather, it still plays such a large role in our lives.”
Gross said people also need to understand that this identity and the state’s resources can be threatened by weather.
“Twice in the past 11 years, as a result of climate change, we’ve had very unusual early spring warmth that brought buds out on fruit trees,” he said. “Then it was followed by a frost that killed those buds, and Michigan lost a large majority of its cherry crop. We need to watch these things.”
Leiby agrees, explaining that “Lake Effects” will reach out to younger children and educate them on the science of weather. The museum also plans to feature guest speakers, like meteorologists.
“The exhibit is aimed at everyone, but this is probably one of the more family-friendly, kid-friendly exhibits we’ve had in a while,” she said. “We’ll have a lot of interactive pieces and try to get kids to express what they know about the weather they’re experiencing or have experienced.”
Gross said that when introduced to weather science, children tend to become very engaged.
“Weather is one of the greatest sciences kids can learn about,” he said. “It’s tangible. Kids know a cold day and a hot day and what snow feels and looks like.
The realities of a changing climate call for everyone to educate themselves, Gross said.
“One scientist told me under the most conservative estimate, in 75 years, a Michigan summer will feel like a Missouri summer,” he said. “The types of trees around us could change. Some projections suggest we’ll have less rain, but more intense rain events, dropping our lake levels. This is serious.”
And the special relationship children have with weather is crucial in dealing with climate change issues, Gross said.
“Now is one of the greatest opportunities for learning a generation has ever had,” he said. “We have the Internet, we have so many opportunities to learn about extreme weather events or to look at current radar and satellite images. It’s so important, now more than ever, for people to pay attention.”