Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Gordon Lightfoot (1938–2023)

Gordon Lightfoot died yesterday at the age of 84.  The Canadian singer-songwriter wrote one of the greatest weather related songs of all time, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."

It was, in fact, one of the first two records that I bought as a kid, and the 45 looked exactly like the one below.  The yellow-orange label is seared into my synapses.

What role it played in my eventual career path is unknown, but I loved the song and probably love it even more today.  The lyrics are historical, haunting, poetic, and powerful.

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty
That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early

The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
With a crew and good captain well seasoned
Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
And later that night when the ship's bell rang
Could it be the north wind they'd been feelin'?

The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
And a wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too
T'was the witch of November come stealin'
The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
When the gales of November came slashin'
When afternoon came it was freezin' rain
In the face of a hurricane west wind
When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck sayin'
"Fellas, it's too rough to feed ya"
At seven PM, a main hatchway caved in, he said
"Fellas, it's been good to know ya"
The captain wired in he had water comin' in
And the good ship and crew was in peril
And later that night when his lights went outta sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
Does any one know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay
If they'd put fifteen more miles behind her
They might have split up or they might have capsized
They may have broke deep and took water
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters
Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the rooms of her ice-water mansion
Old Michigan steams like a young man's dreams
The islands and bays are for sportsmen
And farther below Lake Ontario
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
With the gales of November remembered
In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
In the maritime sailors' cathedral
The church bell chimed 'til it rang twenty-nine times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early

The song was six minutes long, yet you always wanted to know more.  The causes of the shipwreck remain unclear with many hypotheses proposed, although wind and waves were a contributor. Modern analysis and modeling tools have been used to describe the meteorology that led to the tragic loss of life, indicating peak gusts above hurricane force and waves higher than 20 feet (see Hultquist et al. 2006).  Surface analyses of the event show the passage of an intense extratropical cyclone, with Lake Superior in the intense pressure gradient to the southwest of the low at 0000 UTC 11 November (lower right image).  The ship was lost about 15 minutes later.

Source: Hultquist et al. 2006

In many ways, it resembled a powerful oceanic cyclone.  Norwegian meteorologist refer to that region of of a deep cyclone as the poisonous tail of the bent-back occlusion due to the hazards posed for mariners.  It can feature what meteorologists call a sting jet, which wraps around the low center and descends to the surface.  

The song has inspired many meteorologists, if not to enter the field, then to ponder the meteorology of the event.  

Rest in peace Gordon Lightfoot and those who perished in this tragedy.  


  1. Thanks for the analysis! I had heard the song many times but didn’t know a lot of the lyrics. Its an interesting and tragic piece of history. I first made it to Lake Superior on a road trip in 2020 and was impressed by how beautiful (and cold!) the lake was in late July.
    - David

  2. Amazing post! Grew up on Lake Erie and that song, especially last verse, is burned into my cortex.

  3. I saw Gordon Lightfoot live at Chautauqua, many many years ago. A true performer and artist. R.I.P.

  4. My friend used to call this "One of the great party songs of all time"... sarcastically of course. It is, however, one of the great weather songs...