When you think of a tsunami, you think of a wall of water that causes massive flooding, destruction and death that usually occurs in a much larger body of water like an ocean and that is caused by earthquakes or underwater landslides.

On the Great Lakes, this event is called a meteotsunami, or meteorological tsunami, where waves can get as high as 10 to 20 feet, which could flood Presque Isle's beaches and most of the peninsula.

There are two ingredients to a meteotsunami:

  • A sudden change of air pressure, which can generate waves like when you toss a pebble in the water.
  • With the help of fast moving thunderstorms matching the speed of those waves, the water can be pushed towards land, inundating the shoreline and causing considerable property damage or loss of life.

“If there are thunderstorms anywhere, nearby the potential is that a large wave could come from this thunderstorm and catch them off guard,” said Kirk Lombardy, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Cleveland.

Lombardy showed Erie News Now John Stehlin data from a 2012 event that hit Fairport Harbor, which is northeast of Cleveland.

The radar showed storms moving across Lake Erie towards Ashtabula County. Ahead of the storm, three waves were generated. The energy of the waves hit the southern shores of Lake Erie then bounced back towards the islands and eventually made its way to the Ontario shoreline.

VIDEO: Water level displacement from 2012 Fairport Harbor meteotsunami

Meteotsunamis are rare events, but they have happened more often than you think. Most occur between April and August during severe weather season, which is also peek time for swimmers at Presque Isle beaches.

Lake Erie lifeguard manager Bob North said his lifeguards take changing weather and changing water levels very seriously.

“All the beaches have radios on," said North. "All the guards have a protocol of when to start to warn people, when to clear the beaches, and when to clear the water when we have an impending storm coming in.”

As of now, there is no warning system for a meteotsunami, although the National Weather Service is installing equipment to help detect sudden air pressure changes, which is just one of the components of this phenomenon. Modeling data is also being improved to predict when and where a meteotsunami will strike.

For now, it’s up to those who are enjoying a day at the beach or who have lakeside property to use caution. Be aware of approaching storms and seek shelter immediately.

Newspaper clippings of meteotsunamis