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Cursed Drowned Sailors

Author: Stephen Vermette

While in the Arctic, the 19th Century explorer Fridtjof Hansen experienced the phenomenon of dead water, which brings a ship’s forward momentum to a near stop.  Seafarers had long linked this effect to cursed drowned sailors holding onto the vessel. Hansen sought a scientific explanation. The answer he received attributed the ship’s failure to move forward – “in spite of the engine going full pressure” − as being due to internal gravity waves generated by the ship. In Hansen’s case, the ship was generating these internal waves along the interface between a stratified layer of fresh water (from melting ice) on top of saltier denser seawater, thus redirecting the propulsion energy at the expense of moving the ship forward1.

My wager is that the reader will remember the simplicity of ‘cursed drown sailors’ before comprehending and expounding on the complexity of ‘internal gravity waves’. We, the public and our politicians, have the tendency at times to grasp the simplest explanation, especially one that imparts blame. In the case of high Lake Ontario waters and shoreline erosion, Plan 2014 (current IJC water level management plan, in effect on January 2017) is our local version of ‘cursed drown sailors’. In addition, blaming Plan 2014 offers a simple culprit − the International Joint Committee (IJC).

In the blame game, Governor Cuomo has stoked the fires against the IJC: “They have failed to manage the lake level — period. End of story. It was their job. They failed.”2 With his ‘period’, no other possibilities can be considered, including the natural variability of climate, the intricacies of natural forces, and the consequences of a warming world. What one finds peculiar is that Governor Cuomo, by most accounts, is a champion for science and climate change science, yet not on this issue. There is no acknowledgement that Lake Ontario has flooded in the past, that the high-water levels are attributed to record high inputs to Lake Ontario from upper Great Lakes inflow, or of record rainfalls in the Lake Ontario watershed, each of which might be attributable to a changing climate. Nor does he consider other complexities, such as  the ongoing downstream flooding along the St. Lawrence River, the fact that our ability to control the water levels of Lake Ontario is minimal given the record inflow, and that Plan 2014 (not much different than the earlier management plan, as it relates to flood control) was a victim of unfortunate timing, coincidental to the 2017 flooding. Rather than using the flooding as a poignant example of the need for managed adaptation and planning and to mitigate a changing climate, Cuomo gives nature and climate change a pass and instead cites ‘cursed drowned sailors’ − Plan 2014 and mismanagement on the part of the IJC. In this case, we, the public, should avoid the tantalizing simple answer, if devoid of science.

I am reminded of yet another example of ‘cursed drowned sailors’ and the blame game. In 2005, when the New York Power Authority was undergoing an environmental review, many politicians in Erie County attributed the spring cooling of the city of Buffalo to the Niagara River ‘ice boom’ as they sought financial compensation for Erie County.

Ice boom

This attribution is one of Buffalo’s enduring, but incorrect, myths which can be traced to the occurrence of a series of cold springs in the few years after the ice boom was installed. Another case of bad timing. One can easily imagine the politician’s statements were clinched by the proverbial ‘period’. The reality is that the ice boom does not cause the ice to pile up behind it, but simply limits the ice that finds its way down the Niagara River. The ice buildup is due to the concave shape of Lake Erie’s eastern terminus, the prevailing winds that blow the ice eastward, and the narrow constriction of the Niagara River. One hundred and fifty years ago, well before the ice boom was built, the Buffalo Gazette reported: “Our present spring thus far, is something backwards in the vicinity of this village. This is perhaps, in a great way occasioned by the unusual amount of ice, which yet remains in the eastern part of Lake Erie.” The ice builds up, and has built up, and cooling winds blow, and have blown, across the ice, with or without the ice boom. But, as is the case with Lake Ontario shoreline flooding, it is easier to cite ‘cursed drowned sailors’, and we, the public, fall into line.

So, the next time the upper Great Lakes inflow is at or near record levels, and even more water is added to Lake Ontario from heavy rains over its watershed, one can be assured that simply blaming (suing) the IJC will not prevent future flooding.

1Physics Today, June 2019, Erdal Yiğit and Alexander S. Medvedev, “Obscure Waves in Planetary Atmospheres”, pp 40 to 46.


Lead image courtesy New York National Guard

Written by Stephen Vermette – Stephen Vermette is a professor of Geography at SUNY Buffalo State. His teaching and research is on weather and climate, and includes a focus on local conditions.  This commentary evolved while working with students during his Fall’19 ‘Weather and Society’ course. Dr. Vermette authored the book “The Face of WNY’s Weather”, available at the Buffalo State College bookstore.

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