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As an Underwater Graveyard, the Great Lakes Have Claimed Close to 10,000 Ships

Though called the Great Lakes, these massive bodies of water are actually inland seas, and can be just as unpredictable as the ocean.

By Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi
May 6, 2024 6:00 PM
tug boat shipwreck great lakes
(Credit: Focused Adventures/Shutterstock)


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The Great Lakes were a massive graveyard for ships lost at sea for centuries. Sailboats have slipped into storms, never to be seen again. Steamers have rocked in the waves. Even massive freighters have sunk to the sea floor.

Although shipwrecks may seem like part of the Great Lakes’ past, advancing technology is helping researchers understand the weather patterns that have made so many voyages fatal. Technology is also helping scientists find sunken vessels that were once thought to be lost forever.  

Great Loss in the Great Lakes

There isn’t an official number as to how many ships have sunk in the Great Lakes, but most estimates range between 6,000 and 10,000 lost ships, according to Carrie Sowden, the archaeological and research director for the National Museum of the Great Lakes in Toledo.

Wreckage rates, however, vary from one lake to the next. Lake Michigan has the most wrecks, but Lake Erie has the highest density. Although Lake Superior is the deepest, Sowden says it has fewer wrecks than the other lakes. “It has the least amount of traffic,” Sowden says.  

Read More: Shipwrecks Teem With Underwater Life, From Microbes To Sharks

Le Griffon and SS Edmund Fitzgerald

Historians typically agree that the Le Griffon was the first European vessel to go missing in the Great Lakes. In 1679, the ship sailed from Buffalo, NY, to Green Bay, WI, navigating through Lake Erie, up the Detroit River to Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River. From there, it sailed the waters of Lake Huron to Lake Michigan.

After stopping in what is now Green Bay, the ship began its voyage back to Buffalo. “It was never seen again,” Sowden says.

One of the most recent wreckages occurred in 1975 when the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank in the deep waters of Lake Superior. Twenty-nine lives were lost.

In the centuries between the disappearance of Le Griffon and the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, there have been, as one historian describes it, “an alarming number” of shipwrecks in the Great Lakes. 

Great Lakes shipwrecks are particularly disturbing because modern vessels have also struggled on the Great Lakes. The seafloor has seen ships powered by sail, steam, or diesel. Wreckage from 18th-century wooden ships rests near debris from 20th-century steel ships. 

Read More: Preserved Sunken Ship Found in Shipwreck Alley After 120 Years

High Winds and Massive Waves

Globally, an estimated three million voyages have ended in a wreck, and many lost vessels have never been located. The Great Lakes also has many missing ships — historians don’t even agree where Le Griffon might have sunk — but it also has many easy-to-spot wrecks.

Divers or boaters can see an estimated 1,000 wrecks. Hundreds of these wrecks have protected status, and many are increasingly seen as historical or cultural sites.

Dangerous Waters

The vast amount of shipwrecks in the Great Lakes may seem surprising to people who think of a lake as a small body of water ideal for a relaxing day in a row boat or canoe. The Great Lakes, however, are massive bodies of water with weather systems more expected in seas.

“We really are ‘inland seas’ instead of ‘inland lakes,’” says Guy A. Meadows, the director of the Marine Engineering Laboratory and founding director of the Great Lakes Research Center at Michigan Technological University.

These inland seas are located in the middle of the continent, and Meadows says this can mean hurricane-strength winds and powerful storms. Many of these powerful storms hit in November and December when Meadows says the waters are still warm from the summer, but Canadian air is starting to push down. 

“The temperature difference between the air and water can be 40 degrees,” Meadows says. “That is unheard of in an ocean environment.” 

The Perils of the Great Lakes

The temperature difference and high winds can lead to massive waves. “With the Edmund Fitzgerald, the waves were twice the size they were forecasted to be,” Meadows says.

But massive winds and high waves aren’t the only perils a boat can face on the Great Lakes. Meadows says ice forms more readily in freshwater than in saltwater. Ice accumulates on ships quickly, and crew members also have to contend with navigating icy waters.

Water levels can also vary widely. Dry years can mean low water levels and exposed shorelines, while wet years can bring storms and the risk of wreckage.

“During years of high water level, we have higher water because more frequent and intense storms bring more water to the lakes,” Meadows says. “But those same storms bring more wind. We have learned that our wave energy is 25 percent greater in high water years.” 

Read More: Revisiting the Atlanta: Why Shipwrecks are so Common on the Great Lakes

How Technology Finds Lost Ships

For centuries, lost ships have gone undiscovered, with no survivors to offer clues as to where and why the ship went down. Technology such as side scan sonar is enabling search teams to find long-lost vessels.

Although side scan sonar isn’t all that new, Sowden says it’s become relatively inexpensive in the past few years, which means poorly funded research groups or independent searchers are able to access them. And more search missions means more discoveries.

“There’s a lot more people out there looking for them, and we’re hearing about three or four a year,” Sowden says.

The HMS Ontario, for example, was a British warship that sank in 1780 during the Revolutionary War. Researchers discovered it in 2008. 

Read More: No One Knows How Many Shipwrecks Exist, So How Do We Find Them?

Preventing Future Wrecks

A sunken sailboat may seem like a page from a history book about life in the 1700s, but Meadows says more intense weather conditions are resulting in dangerous storms. His research center is working to make storms more predictable through buoys that monitor waves, currents, and weather.

The buoys, for example, have temperature sensors that dangle all the way to the seafloor. There are also video cameras that show wave movement and all the data is sent to a website that can be accessed by anyone thinking about going for a boat ride.

Read More: What Are Eerie Ghost Ships and How Are They Impacting The Environment?

Article Sources

Our writers at Discovermagazine.com use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:

Emilie Lucchesi has written for some of the country's largest newspapers, including The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and an MA from DePaul University. She also holds a Ph.D. in communication from the University of Illinois-Chicago with an emphasis on media framing, message construction and stigma communication. Emilie has authored three nonfiction books. Her third, "A Light in the Dark: Surviving More Than Ted Bundy," releases October 3, 2023 from Chicago Review Press and is co-authored with survivor Kathy Kleiner Rubin.

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