2011 Great Lakes Current Incident Summary

Great Lakes Current Incident Database (GLCID)

An archive of incidents caused by rip currents, structural currents, outlet currents, and channel currents on the Great Lakes


 The number of current related incidents on the Great Lakes this swim season was above the average of 11 incidents per year (GLCID, 2002-2010). This year there 15 drowning fatalities, with a majority of them on Lake Michigan. In addition, the Great Lakes saw at least 68 rescues. This is higher than any year (even last year), though it is likely a function of increased media attention and coverage of current related incidents.

Current related incidents from  2002-2011. GLCID, 2011.

 As is typical, Lake Michigan had the majority of the incidents, with 60 reported rescues and 10 drowning fatalities related to dangerous currents. There were more incidents in Lake Ontario than is typical, likely due to increased media attention to dangerous currents. Incidents in the past were likely underreported, with only 1 drowning and 1 rescue attributed to dangerous currents in the database prior to this year. This year there were 3 deaths and 1 rescue.

Number of current related incidents by Lake 2002-2011. Lake Michigan had the highest number of

drowning deaths and rescues due to dangerous currents. GLCID, 2011.


Check out the beaches of this summer's current related incidents below. Dangerous currents occur near shoreline structures, river mouths, and within sandbars, especially during high waves.

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

Images from Googlemaps.com.


Conditions Observed During and Prior To Current-Related Incidents

Wave heights

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 when waves ranged from 2 to 4 feet. This year, it seemed most incidents were in the 1 to 3 feet and 4 to 7 feet ranges. This is because a majority of the incidents this year occurred near shoreline structures. Structural currents can occur with smaller wave heights, like the 1 to 3 feet range. Only four incidents had waves in the calm to 2 feet range, and two of them 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 ft range and the 1 to 3 ft range. GLCID 2011.

 In contrast to previous years, current related incidents often occurred as wave heights were increasing (i.e they had lower wave heights up to 12 hours prior to the incident). Most of the current-related incidents in the past occurred as wave heights were decreasing or when wave heights were relatively steady through the day.

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

Observed wind speeds from the time of the incident most often ranged from 15 to 25 mph. The secondary spike in the 5 to 15 miles per hour range was a result of the large number of structural current incidents.


Observed winds at the time of the incidents.GLCID, 2011


 About the Victims involved


As is typical in drowning rescue and fatality data across the globe, 83% of the victims involved in the incidents were male (17% were female, and for 33% the gender was unknown). The average age of the victims was 22 years old, which is also typical of current related incidents.


 Most Noteable Case from 2011 

August 3, 2011: 1 Drowning Fatality and 28 Rescues Attributed to Dangerous 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. Out of the 30 total rescues at Holland State Park, 28 were related to structural currents. The other two were related to personal watercraft. Another girl in Pentwater, MI (north of Holland) drowned when she was swept out into the lake by a structural current near the breakwall.


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 swim risk  posted on their web page.  The beaches were crowded, with mostly sunny skies and temperatures in the upper seventies and low eighties. At Holland State Park, the red flags were flying, warning swimmers to stay out of the water. 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 number 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. One rescued girl told NWS Marquette in an interview, "We were not swimming near the pier, but we got pulled towards it because of the current (longshore 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 along the breakwall (Structural current)." 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 structural 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. 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 ranged from 3 to 5 feet 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 Fatality

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).


     This year we had 83 incidents related to dangerous currents. 15 of the 83 incidents were fatalities. Overall, it was an above average year, though it did not compare to the 30 current related drowning deaths across the Great Lakes in 2010.



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