A History of Rip Currents and Channel Currents on the Great Lakes
In an examination of rip currents on the Great Lakes from 1994-2007 (Gensini, 2009), Michigan is fourth for the greatest number of rip current related fatalities, which is just behind Florida, California, and North Carolina. According to the National Weather Service (NWS) database collected by D. Guenther (The Great Lakes Current Incident Database, or GLCID), the Great Lakes averages around 12 drowning deaths per year related to rip currents, with a majority of the incidents occuring on Lake Michigan. For more details on why Lake Michigan is so prone to rip current related incidents, see the Lake Michigan page. From 2002-2012, there has been a total of 413 rip and channel current related incidents across the Great Lakes. Please remember that 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 each year-which is on the order of millions.
Data collected in the database from 2002-2012. The abnormally high amount of rescues in 2009, 2011, and 2012 were due to isolated incidents where
15-30 people had to be rescued during one dangerous afternoon. These days high waves, in combination with rip currents, likely caused the high number of incidents. Data from the GLCID, 2012.
Why was 2010 so deadly (in comparison to other years)? Mainly because there were more days with higher waves (and hence more dangerous rip currents) than in previous years. Many times, rip current survivors claimed being taken out from shore by the rip current, and then pushed into deeper water where waves were over their head. Below are maps that show rip current and channel current related incidents across the Great Lakes recorded in the GLCID. Keep in perspective that these incidents occurred over a period of eleven years, and millions of people visit these beaches each year. You may also notice that Lake Ontario has the least amount of drownings and rescues, but it is likely a function of not being able to easily find drowning-related reports from Canada. Many media articles from this area were non specific as to the reason for the drowning/rescue-others said "dangerous currents were involved in the incident." Other factors come into play that have not yet been reviewed in relation to this database, such as population, beach accessibility and cleanliness, lifeguards, and the abilities of each individual swimmer.
The number of rip current and channel current related incidents by county (2002-2012) on the Great Lakes. Image created by Jane Marie Wix using data from the GLCID (2012).
Number of rip and channel current related fatalities on the Great Lakes 2002-2012. Image created by Jane Marie Wix using data from the GLCID (2012).