Lake Erie rises into Buffalo Harbor   Photo by Jburney
Lake Erie rises into Buffalo Harbor   Photo by Jburney

GreenWatch Sunday: seiche

by / Apr. 7, 2018 5pm EST

Rising Waters, a New Microplastics Study, and New Anti-plastic Supermarket Strategies in this Weeks GreenWatch.

Last week in Buffalo was characterized by wild weather. A huge blunderbuss of a storm came ripping down through the Great Lakes with high winds (gusts of over 75mph were reported in WNY) rain, sleet, cold, snow, and a whole lot of water. On Wednesday, 4 April, a seiche, driven by winds and atmospheric pressure crashed into our Buffalo/Lake Erie/Niagara River and Buffalo River shorelines.

A seiche is a tsunami like movement of water in a lake or a bay.  Unlike a tsunami, a seiche is not created by an earthquake.  It is a weather and wind driven event. It comes ashore in oscillating waves, rapidly raising the water levels. Buffalo is particularly vulnerable to seiches.  Wind drives water from the western basin of Lake Erie into the eastern end where we are.

Scientists call our lake seiches meteotsunamis.

Seiches, like tsunamis, can wreak considerable damage to property as the rising body of water, washes over and floods shorelines, and surges up creeks and rivers.

The wind and pressure push water down the shallow and narrow bathtub that is Lake Erie, piling up a lot of water, waves, and energy in the front. The 4 April seiche raised our shoreline water levels 5-8 feet.

This storm created wind damage throughout our region, and significant flooding in the Outer Harbor. Ice was pushed over the Ice Boom into the Niagara River. You may have seen the tremendous amount of ice in the river this week.

I toured the the Outer Harbor during the event, trying to navigate Furhmann Blvd.  The winds were fierce. Smashed light fixtures were in the street. Power lines and the new traffic lights were waving precariously and dangerously.   The waters had surged to the edge of the riprap at Gallagher Beach as an angry Lake Erie crashed into the pier.  I was very concerned that something (like a truck) would blow off the skyway and down onto where I was. Thankfully the skyway was closed to trucks. Times Beach Nature Preserve was particularly effected.  The waters had risen as high as I have ever seen them, and I have 40 years of watching here. They came to the edge of the Fuhrmann/Andrle trail.  Waves were crashing over it and into the streetside fence. Much of the vegetation inside the preserve was overtopped.  Geese and ducks had been blown against this new shoreline and were struggling to hold their perilous positions. Next door at Wilkeson Pointe Park and at the Michigan Ave Pier, ice had filled the narrow slips, trapping many ducks in thick wind-driven slush. Some sadly had perished. The waters overtopped the slip walls. The seiche effect  here was at least 5 feet, probably more. At the Queen City Landing site where developer Gerry Buchheit is trying to build a 23 story glass condo tower, water had overtopped a considerable part of the site.  This site is undergoing brownfield remediation at public expense and by the looks of it, the water, waves, and ice were washing an awful lot of contaminated soil into the Lake, and the nearby boat slips and fish habitat. I hope that the state takes appropriate action on this very contaminated and exposed site of deep and soft fill. I would like to believe that the developer, lawyers, and public officials responsible observed this storm.   Perhaps we can say that “they know not what they have done” but the truth is that they know exactly what they have done. Protect us from greed and bad decisions. As I stood against the wind and rain all along the Outer Harbor it was impossible for me to imagine anyone wanting, or being able to safely live out here. I feel for those first responders that soon will be called upon to make all weather rescues for those foolish condo residents that do not recognize history or the power of nature. More on that history a little later.

Buffalo is known to have several seiche events a year.  The Great Lakes have over 100 recordable seiches each year. According to a report issued last year, Calumet Harbor on Lake Michigan averages the most at 29 yearly seiches. Buffalo comes in second, averaging 19.

Most of the seiches that we experience in Buffalo are minor and not always obvious to the casual observer. But if you are a boater, you known them when you see them.  Sometimes they can be astonishingly destructive.  The 4 April seiche was created and accompanied by a strong weather system that brought significant pressure changes, high winds, and plenty of precipitation. Everyone of us in the region experienced the power of this set of storms.

Climate science is telling us that we have been experiencing, and should expect, increasingly unstable and extreme weather patterns. Last weeks storms were definitely organized around extreme weather.  Climate scientists say that climate change includes a disrupted atmosphere that leads to these kinds of extreme events.

In recent years we have experienced a number of extreme events. The National Climate Assessment for extreme weather shows a significant observed increase in precipitation for the United States in recent decades.

We should plan for more extreme precipitation and wind events. Coupled with winter temperatures, we could have a catastrophic event hard-wired into our future.  In every conceivable way, the Great Lakes, Lake Erie, and Buffalo are in for dramatic escalations. Destructive seiches are our future. We have to plan for climate resiliency and our shorelines are ground zero.

While this seiche was modest in lake level rise, we have had many seiches that have been gigantic with a historic topping out  reported at 22 feet.  The wind and pressure system made this recent seiche come ashore with substantial repercussions. Imagine a big seiche in really bad, i.e winter weather?

On Friday December 1, 2006 a springtime seiche flowed over the lake and river shorelines to the tune of a 9 feet rise in a couple of hours. Thankfully little ice was involved, the winds were less than catastrophic and so most of the damage came from flooding.  I was out at midnight documenting the damage for GreenWatch. Lakeshore Commons, the very expensive condominiums surrounding the Buffalo’s Erie Basin Marina, and LaSalle Park were under seige as the water overtopped all walls. At the more or less unprotected LaSalle Park huge waves flooded the lower portion and brought in trash including  tree trunks, an unbelievable mountain of plastic debris, and parts of an old car.

I wrote about that event for GreenWatch/Artvoice in December 2006 :

At midnight, I toured the Lakeshore Commons and made my way into LaSalle Park. I have never seen the water so high and the lake so unbridled. Water spilled over the breakwalls, filled up the inner harbor nearly to the top of the wall edging the Buffalo River, and spilled into the streets. The river was running backwards, the water pushed rapidly and violently in by the seiche. At the foot of Porter Avenue, next to the Buffalo Yacht Club, I found myself staring up at cresting and angry waves. the wind was blowing with some velocity. Rain and sleet hitting my face painfully,  I was drenched in a matter of seconds and I got the heck out of there. I drove out towards the outer harbor. Ohio Street was bad with wind and rain, so I drove to Tifft Street, and then out along Fuhrmann Boulevard. The whole world was shaking as water dumped out of the sky in a furious rain. The road was submerging as I neared Gallagher Beach. The beach itself was gone and the howling foamy waves crested the roadway there.  I had no option but to turn around and quickly get out. My thoughts turned to those at the Coast Guard Station on the other side of the dark intense water. My thoughts turned to those that perished out here during the Blizzard of 77 and those many souls that vanished from the Irish shanty town that spread out along the old seawall. Over the decades of its existence starting in the early days of the Erie Canal storms, seiches, snow and ice  hit this historical Buffalo community with a cruel vengeance. Never forget. Many Buffalo families do not.

The Great Seiche of 1844

Buffalo’s most historic seiche occurred in October 1844. Buffalo was then a young but growing  powerhouse bolstered by two decades of supergrowth stimulated by the opening of the Erie Canal. At this point the city, its homes, businesses, wharfs, and streets, occupied low-lying lands along the Buffalo Creek/river corridor, up to the “Hydraulics” which is now characterized by the location of Larkinville. The “Hydraulics” area had become the industrial center of the new city and a canal had been built to service this district because what was then called the Little Buffalo Creek could not handle the commercial shipping needs.

At the Lake end of the river, there were no breakwall as we have today.  There was a modest wall that lead to the historic lighthouse, but it hardly was a storm surge protector.

On the night of October 18, 1844, a 22 foot seiche swept down the lake and overtopped the sleeping city of Buffalo. It unloaded on the lower districts, icely demolished scores of structures, and caused the deaths of a lot of people, many unknown and unrecorded. The exact number of deaths is estimated from the time range from 30 to over 100. Throughout the region, including those on ships outside the harbor and between Buffalo and Erie, many more are known to have perished.

In a Buffalo News Story from 2016, Mike Vogel of the Buffalo Lighthouse Association, is quoted as saying

“The city lacked an extensive system of protective breakwaters in the lake to blunt the force of the waters,” “Buffalo Harbor was just two stone and timber piers jutting into the lake from the mouth of Buffalo Creek; the city’s still-standing land mark lighthouse marked the end of one of the piers, and a crude stone seawall stretched south from the base of that pier along part of what is now Fuhrmann Boulevard.”

It was Abraham Lincoln that first funded the construction of a more resilient breakwall. Initial Construction was completed in 1866 with subsequent construction and more breakwalls constructed and maintained through the present day. Today we have to continue to think of how to make our coastline resilient. Is building a new community on the Outer Harbor a good idea? many people including this writer, think not.  Creating a more natural coastal area that includes recreation, parks, natural restoration and ecological conservation components may be the new coastline direction that we have to think about. Climate change provides an escalating urgency. Only fools will try to fight nature there.


The October Surprise of 1844 Buffalo History Gazette

Great Flood of 1844 Devastates Buffalo Buffalo News

The Great Buffalo Flood of 1844 Maritime History of the Great Lakes 

A Seawall Shantytown in Buffalo by Edward J Patton  A fine account about the Shantytown -published on the Facebook page of he Buffalo Irish Festival.


In Other News

Microplastics Discovered in 90% of Bottled Water

A recent report led by our friend Dr. Shari Mason from SUNY Fredonia has received international attention. Her group studied major brands of bottled water from around the world and discovered that most contained microscopic particles of plastic, aka microplastics at dangerous levels. The most prominent plastic is polypropylene. Nylon and polyethylene terephthalate is also found in significant concentrations. Some brands contain up to 10,000 individual particles per liter.

Previously Mason’s team had studied tap water from around the world which revealed alarming amounts of dangerous microplastics. The US has the highest contamination rate at 94%. The new study indicates that bottled water, in some instance may have twice as much microplastics as tap water.


World Health Organization launches review after micro plastics found in 90% of bottled water  The Guardian 14 March 2018


Plastic fibers found in tap water around the world  The Guardian, 6 September 2017


Straw Free and EkoPlaza Initiatives

Speaking of microplastics. You may know that microbeads were the target of local legislation sponsored by Erie County Legislator Pat Burke and signed into law by Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz in the late summer of 2015. Legislative bodies across the U.S. followed suit and eventually the Microbead Free Water Act was signed into law in 2016 by President Obama. Great leadership from Burke and Poloncarz helped put our region on the environmental defenders map. Recently Malibu and Davis California, Seattle, Washington, Miami Beach and Fort Meyers, Florida have initiated a ban regarding the use of plastic straws. If you see beach debris you will note that plastic straws make up a lot of debris.  Maybe this is a new step that we can initiate in Buffalo and Erie County. Mark and Pat?


Is Plastic-Free the New Organic?  Organic Authority 6 April 2018


Now an important new anti-plastics initiative has been announced by the Dutch supermarket chain Ekoplaza. They are beginning to remove plastic packaging from grocery items in 74 locations. We should watch this closely and perhaps initiate a campaign asking Wegmans to do the same. Who’s in?

More here:

Dutch Supermarket Adds Plastic-Free Grocery Aisle Organic Authority  1 March 2018

A short Video produced by NowThisFuture

Greenwatch has covered water issues since our inception. If you search the Public database you will find dozens of articles about these crucial issues.

Here are some important links:

GreenWatch: A Big Win for the Public Trust and Local Action on Microbeads August 3, 2013

GreenWatch: Poloncarz signs Microbeads Legislation into Law  August 15, 2015

GreenWatch Sunday: Our Public Health Crisis October 22, 2017

GreenWatch Sunday: Water March 4, 2018


GreenWatch Sunday Morning Television

April 4 Seiche on Buffalo’s Outer Harbor

I toured the Outer Harbor during the April 4 seiche that I have written about above. here is a short video of observations.