2011 Great Lakes Current Incident Database Summary

Drowning Deaths: 15*

Archived Rescues: 68*

                                            

   Though it seemed fairly quiet this year on most of the Great Lakes in terms of rip current and channel current related rescues and drowning deaths, it was actually above the 9-year average from 2002-2010. Using the data collected from 2002-2010 by Dave Guenther (NWS Marquette, MI) on rip current and channel current related fatalities, an average of 11 per year was computed. This year we stood at 15 drowning deaths, with a majority of them on Lake Michigan. In addition, the Great Lakes saw at least 68 rescues (that were archived in newspapers or reported to authorities). This is higher than any year (even last year), though it is likely a function of increased media attention and coverage of rip current and channel current related incidents. This does not include rescues by surfers or Good Samaritans (unless it was reported by the media or relayed to the National Weather Service). For more information on the National Weather Service (NWS) Marquette Current Incident Database, go HERE.

NOTE: INCIDENTS IN THE DATABASE ARE CURRENT-RELATED: MEANING INCIDENTS COULD HAVE BEEN A RESULT OF A COMBINATION OF HIGH WAVES AND CURRENTS. ADDITIONALLY, THESE NUMBERS SHOULD BE COMPARED WITH THE HIGH NUMBER OF VISITORS TO THE PARKS AND LOCAL BEACHES PER YEAR-WHICH IS ON THE ORDER OF MILLIONS.

Summary of past swim season incidents involved with channel and rip currents extending from 2002-2011. Data

from the NWS Marquette Great Lakes Current Incident Database

     It was no suprise that Lake Michigan had the majority of the incidents, with 60 reported rescues and 10 drowning deaths due to rip currents. The only abnormal thing about this year was that there was an increase in incidents on Lake Ontario, which previously (2002-2010) had only 1 drowning and 1 rescue attributed to rip currents (in the database). This year there were 3 deaths and 1 rescue. As previously mentioned, this could have been a factor of whether or not the incidents are reported by the media.


2011: Number of current related incidents by Lake. Lake Michigan had the highest number of

drowning deaths and rescues due to rip currents. Data from the NWS Marquette G.L Current Incident Database.

 

2002-2011 Current-related incidents by lake.Data from the NWS Marquette Current Incident Database.
 

Locations where the drowning deaths and rescues occurred...

     This year was no different from the past 8 years with regards to where the drowning deaths and rescues occurred. Looking at the data from the past, rip currents on the Great Lakes primarily occur near piers or breakwall-like structures, at beaches with shore-parallel sandbars, and near river mouths (or outflow from power plants, etc). This year, it is clear that most of the incidents occurred near a structure (like a breakwall); however, most of the drowning deaths (versus rescues) occurred at beaches with sandbars parallel to shore. Below is a graph showing the location of the incidents. SB/S indicates that it was not known if the victim(s) were swimming near the pier or on the sandbars. Many of the victims mentioned they were pulled towards the pier/breakwall, and then out along it. This is due to the longshore current (flows parallel to the shore). Once this current intersects a breakwall, it moves out into the lake as a structural rip current.


Incidents occurred mostly near structures on the Great Lakes for 2011. Most of the drowning deaths occurred at 

beaches with sandbars parallel to the shore, a common set up for rip current development. Most of the

rescues occurred near shoreline structures, like breakwalls. Only one incident was a channel current (LSC).

Data from the NWS Marquette Great Lakes Current Incident Database.

    It becomes clear by looking at each site, that the beaches contain a pier/breakwall, sandbars running parallel to shore, or some sort of outflow (like a river mouth). Locations typical of channel currents contain a sandbar extending from the shore out to some sort of structure, such as a rock or a breakwater (as seen in Erie, PA or Picnic Rocks, Marquette, MI). Check out the beaches of this summer's current related incidents below.

 Beaches where some of this summer's incidents occurred...


Images from Googlemaps.com.

Conditions during and prior to the incidents...

Wave heights...

     Wave heights for most of the cases were not suprising. Most of the incidents took place under moderate to high wave events (i.e higher than 3 feet). From 2002-2010, most of the incidents occurred during waves of 2 to 4 feet in size. This year, it seemed most incidents were in the 1 to 3 feet and 4 to 7 feet ranges. Keep in mind, a majority of the incidents this year occurred near structures. Structural rip currents can occur with smaller wave heights, like the 1 to 3 feet range. Only 4 incidents had waves in the calm to 2 feet range, and 2 were associated with breakwalls.

The graph above shows the wave heights during each death/rescue incident. Most of the incidents

occurred under the 4 to7 feet range and the 1 to 3 feet range. Previous research (2002-2010)

indiated most people were rescued/drowned in waves between 2 and 4 feet. Data from the

NWS Marquette Current Incident Database.

     Of the 31 cases where there were waves in between 1 and 3 feet, only 10 incidents had waves in the 2 to 4 or 3 to 5 feet range prior to the incident. Some of these events were in the "ramping up" stage, so wave heights prior to the incident were in the calm to 2 feet range. This is different than the 2002-2010 data suggested where a majority of the cases had wave heights greater than the 1 to 3 feet range prior to the incident.

 

Most wave heights prior to 1 to 3 feet range incidents were still in the 1 to 3 feet height range

before the incident. Data from the NWS Marquette Current Incident Database.

Wind Speeds...

     Wind speeds observed during the time of the incidents were typically in the 15 to 25 miles per hour range, which goes along with the most common waves seen during these incidents (the 4 to 7 feet range). The secondary spike in the 5 to 15 miles per hour range was likely a result of incidents near breakwall structures. 

 


Winds at the time of each drowning death/rescue incident (2011). Data from the

NWS Marquette Current Incident Database.

 

 About the Victims involved...

    As is typical, just over half of the victims involved in the incidents were male. The other half was a mixture of females and unknowns, as is seen in the graph below.

 

 

Most of the victims involved in the drowning death/rescue events were male. Data

from the NWS Marquette Current Incident Database.

 

     A breakdown of the age of the victims was also done. The average age of the victims was 22 years old. Though there were 33 unknown ages, a majority of the victims were younger than 25. A secondary peak is seen between the ages of 46 and 55.

 

Most of the victims were younger than 25 years old. Data from the NWS Marquette Current

Incident Database.

 

 Most Noteable Case from 2011 

August 3, 2011: 1 drowning death, 28 rescues due to rip currents

Location: Holland, MI (Ottawa County) and Pentwater, MI (Oceana County).

     On this day, over 30 rescues were made by the Coast Guard located in Ottawa, MI. 28 of those incidents were rescues from rip currents, the other two were related to personal watercraft. In addition, a girl in Pentwater, MI (north of Holland) was also killed when she was swept out into the lake by a rip current near the pier.

 

Holland State Park (Ottawa, MI). Rip current was on the north side of the pier. Image from Google Maps (2011).

 

     The night before, a cold front had swept across Lake Michigan, and high pressure was moving in from the west. As a result, winds were 15 to 25 miles per hour out of the northwest. Knowing this to be a typical set up for rip current development, the National Weather Service in Grand Rapids, MI had a high risk of rip currents posted on their web page.  With mostly sunny skies and temperatures in the upper seventies and low eighties, people wasted no time heading out to the inviting beaches of Lake Michigan. At Holland State Park, the red flags were already flying. No doubt, park officials recalled a similar day in 2009, where in a five hour period; 23 people had to be rescued near the north pier. Conditions on that day were almost the same as August 3, with winds 15 to 25 miles per hour out of the northwest and waves in the 2 to 5 feet range.

 

Hydrologic Prediction Center (HPC) weather map from 2:00 PM EDT on August 3, 2011.

High pressure is seen to the west, and the cold front to the south east.

     By 8:00 PM EDT that evening, the Department of Natural Resource staff closed the beach due to the high volume of rescues. As winds were northwest, the longshore current moved parallel to the beach in a southerly direction, intersecting piers on the north sides and jetting out into the lake as a structural rip current. NWS Marquette contacted one of the victims via Facebook. She discussed what happened on the day she almost lost her life. When asked what happened, she said, "We were not swimming near the pier, but we got pulled towards it because of the current. We were to the right [north] of Holland State Park Beach. We were just behind the buoys that mark the spot where swimming is prohibited, when we were pulled out further into the lake. The waves at their highest were around five feet." When asked which was the most prohibitive to her swimming (or getting back to shore), the waves or the current, she replied, "The current was the worst. Hands down."

 

Photo of the North Pier at Holland State Park, Ottawa county, MI. This photo was not taken August 3, 2011.

Photo released at: http://home.waycom.com/PhotoByDan/Default.htm.

 

     Further north up the beach, there was another rescue. A 13 year old girl was caught up in the rip current along the northern pier near Charles Mears State Park. She went under, but a 29 year old man from Newaygo, MI was able to reach her near the south pier. A few days later, the girl died at a hospital in Grand Rapids, MI. Conditions were slightly different than at Holland, with northwest winds at 10 to 20 miles per hour, though for the evening prior to the incident, the winds were 15 to 25 miles per hour. Waves were in the 3 to 5 feet range at the time of the incident (using the northern Lake Michigan Buoy). At the beach, witnesses indicated that the waves may have been more like 6 to 8 feet.

 

Beach at Charles Mears State Park, Pentwater, MI (Oceana County). Photo from Googlemaps.com.

 

Channel Current Drowning Deaths 2011

July 26, 2011: 7 year old boy drowns at Barracks Beach, Presque Isle

Location: Presque Isle (Barracks Beach) in Erie, Pennsylvania

 

Presque Isle, Erie Pennsylvania: The channel current at Barracks beach played a part in the death of a 7 yr old boy.

Image from Googlemaps.com

A 7 year old boy went ahead of his parents and into Lake Erie with his siblings for a swim around 9:00 PM EDT. A short time later, the boy could not be found. The head lifeguard (not present during the event) said what likely happened was the boy went into the water and was pushed off the sandbar. He also mentioned that once winds get above 10 miles per hour, the current in that location picks up and people usually start to struggle to stay on the sandbars. That night, winds were west at 15 to 25 miles per hour and waves were in the 1 to 3 feet range. According to the Lake Erie Buoy, the mean wave direction was out of the north, likely allowing for strong currents to move through that general beach. The lifeguard added, "If the beach had been open later, it would have been a yellow flag day. Those currents likely contributed to the death of the boy."

The left image was taken from the Presque Isle Lifeguard Manager Steve Dunsmore, explaining how the channel currents

work in that area, which is similar to the diagram from Michigan SeaGrant (right).

Summary:

     This year we had 82 incidents related to rip currents, and 1 incident related to a channel current. 15 of the 83  current incidents were drowning deaths. Overall, it was an above average year, though it did not compare to the 30 drowning deaths in 2010. From the data, swimming near breakwall-like structures at anytime is a hazard, as structural rip currents can form with waves as low as 1 to 2 feet. Additionally, swimming in higher surf with onshore winds can develop rip currents amongst the sandbars at various beaches along the Great Lakes Coast. The typical victims this year were males under 25 years of age.To learn more about rip currents and channel currents on the Great Lakes, go HERE. This will take you to the table of contents for our webpage.

NOTE: INCIDENTS IN THE DATABASE ARE CURRENT-RELATED: MEANING INCIDENTS COULD HAVE BEEN A RESULT OF A COMBINATION OF HIGH WAVES AND CURRENTS. ADDITIONALLY, THESE NUMBERS SHOULD BE COMPARED WITH THE HIGH NUMBER OF VISITORS TO THE PARKS AND LOCAL BEACHES PER YEAR-WHICH IS ON THE ORDER OF MILLIONS.

 


USA.gov is the U.S. government's official web portal to all federal, state and local government web resources and services.