Lake Michigan Drownings Up This Summer, Rip Currents To Blame
Warmer water temperatures, combined with tricky winds has led to a tragic summer along the coast of Lake Michigan. So far 35 people have drowned in the Lake this summer, almost half of the totals for all of the Great Lakes combined.
So what makes Lake Michigan more dangerous than the other Great Lakes?35 people have died by drowning in Lake Michigan waters so far this summer, the highest in four years. 73 people have drowned in all the Great Lakes combined according to statistics compiled by the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.
The truth is Lake Michigan is probably not any more dangerous than any other Great Lake, but more people are within an hour's drive of Lake Michigan, which means it's used more than any other.
That being said, Lake Michigan has some features that do make it tricky, especially for those who are not familiar with its dangers.
Two things may be making this summer more tragic than normal. One is the warmer summer, which has led to warmer lake temperatures, and that has meant more people swimming. Second, high winds have been at play this summer, causing rip currents, which for the uninitiated, could spell trouble.
“Structural currents build on windy days, and swimmers and boaters often can get into trouble when caught in currents such as rip currents, long-shore currents, and structural currents,” Ron Kinnunen of the Michigan Sea Grant program recently told the Detroit News. “Young people are attracted to high waves and sandy beaches and this can cause problems.”
Five foot waves this week claimed the lives of two Holland teenagers off the North Pier of Holland State Park. Two other teens struggled to get to the rocks and save themselves while battling the currents.
National Weather Service Meteorologist Jared Maples told the Grand Haven Tribune that Lake Michigan waves little time to rest when you're caught in a current. Maples said the average ocean wave set leaves 5-7 seconds between breakers, while Lake waves give you 3-5 seconds.
“It wears people out a lot more quickly,” he said.
By looking at the sand flow in this video, you can see how quickly a rip current, or rip tide can pull you out to deep water.
Dave Benjamin of the GLSRP agrees. He told the Chicago Tribune Lake Michigan is like a basin, kicking up waves and currents much faster than most people realize.
"When you're caught in a dangerous current, it's confusing which way you're being pulled. You can be pulled into a rip current, then pulled into a longshore current, then a structural current," he said. "The currents are usually working in concert together."
He added that seven foot waves easily deter even brave swimmers, but 3 to 4 foot swells don't, and a lot of times they are just as dangerous.
Mark Breederland, who teaches water safety with the group Michigan Sea Grant, says it's also how quickly the wind rises on Lake Michigan that can surprise people not familiar with the Lake.
"It can start out pretty calm," he told NPR. "Pretty soon it picks up — you know, you're out there just enjoying the beach, and you're not really thinking about it. And all of a sudden, man, the waves have come way up from what they were when you first started."
The GLSRP offers this infographic in part of its effort to infrom people how to deal with rip currents. the most important thing to remember is not to panic.
The deadliest years recently on the Great Lakes were 2011 and 2012 when 87 and 101 people drowned respectively.
A majority of the drowning deaths on Lake Michigan have been from the Chicago area, 11 of those deaths have come in West Michigan.
The good news for this final big weekend of summer is that winds will die down substantially. The forecast calls for temps in the 80s, water temps in the 60s and light winds of 5-10 mph.