LSA sophomore Rachael Hubbell knows the dangers that rip currents pose for swimmers in the Great Lakes.
“I grew up across from the water and was always at the beach, so it was always a more present danger,” she said.
However, not all beachgoers, especially the thousands of tourists that flock from inland areas to Michigan beaches each year, are as well informed.
“From what I understand, most people who don’t grow up around lakes don’t really talk about that sort of thing,” Hubbell said.
With the summer season approaching, researchers at the University and the National Weather Service have teamed up to promote safety on Michigan beaches by increasing awareness of dangerous currents, which have claimed 138 lives and prompted almost 300 rescue efforts since 2002.
Compiling 12 years worth of data, the researchers, under the purview of Michigan Sea Grant — a joint effort between the University’s School of Natural Resources and Environment and Michigan State University’s Extension Greening Institute — have established the Great Lakes Current Incident Database, which went live this April. The program allows the public to access records of fatalities and rescues at beaches around the state, while also providing weather information, such as wind speed, current type and wave height.
The recent move coincides with Rip Current Awareness Week, which begins June 1.
Elizabeth LaPorte, an investigator who has been working with the team of researchers for the last eight years, said the project was initiated after it was determined just how dangerous the Great Lakes were for swimmers. Among all states, Michigan accounted for half of swimmer fatalities and the data suggested that such occurrences were becoming more common each year.
“Previously, folks didn’t realize that there were dangerous currents in the Great Lakes,” LaPorte said.
Unlike ocean beaches, a large number of Michigan beaches do not have professional lifeguards on duty, even during peak summer months. LaPorte said she did not understand this decision because it puts less experienced swimmers in serious danger.
“It’s interesting that we have lifeguards at the pools, but we don’t along the Great Lakes,” she said. “The fact is that swimmers in the Great Lakes are at a huge disadvantage than swimmers would be in Florida or other areas, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t dying from rip currents in other areas.”
She said the increase in fatalities and rescues is largely unexplained at this point, but said there are several current theories.
“The low water levels might be a factor … but there are also more people swimming for a longer period of time during the swim season,” she said.
Though the project highlights the effects of rip currents, which tend to pull swimmers away the shore into deeper water, LaPorte said the study covered several different types of currents, several of which are relatively unknown to the public. One such type of current, known as a structural current, can form as water flows near a pier or breakwater, and presents a serious — usually unidentified — hazard to swimmers.
Young men are one of the highest at-risk groups for drowning, according to LaPorte. She said drowning in this demographic usually occurs when individuals swim in dangerous areas affected by structural currents.
“We are finding more and more young men are jumping off of these piers and breakwaters, and we want to warn them that it’s probably the most unsafe place to be,” LaPorte said.
In addition to providing data to the public, Michigan Sea Grant will work to promote swimmer safety through the installation of “beach safety kits” at various locations around the state. These kits will include a life-ring and throw-bag, both of which could potentially be used in a rescue attempt.
LaPorte said families traveling to beaches this summer can stay safe by following simple safety guidelines, such as checking the weather report ahead of time and obeying all posted warnings and advisories. Many beaches in the state use a colored-flag warning system to indicate the level of danger on a given day. Yellow flags indicate a rip current may be present, while red flags indicate there are active rip currents in the area and swimmers should avoid entering the water.
While colder water temperatures may keep some beachgoers on the shore this Memorial Day weekend, the approaching summer weather will likely bring warmer water temperatures, which could linger as late as October.
LaPorte said it’s important all beachgoers exercise caution whenever they venture into the water, given that swimmers in trouble may not be able to attract attention or call for help.
“It’s really important to pay attention to what’s going on around you,” she said. “Drowning is a really silent event.”