National Weather Service
Great Lakes Beach Hazards Program
Know Before you Go:
To the Beach
Into the Water
Know the Swim Risk Forecast Before Heading to the Beach
Most Great Lakes National Weather Service (NWS) offices issue Recreational Beach Forecasts and Beach Hazards Statements to alert the public of high waves and dangerous currents. Ensure you check the Recreational Beach Forecast and watch for Beach Hazards Statements BEFORE you leave for a day at the beach.
Recreational Beach Forecasts (or Surf Zone Forecasts)
Every day from roughly Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, the NWS will issue a Recreational Forecast. This forecast is usually done early in the morning (typically by 5 am LDT) so that those traveling long distances to the beach have plenty of time to make or adjust their plans. This forecast provides beach relevant information such as expected air and water temperatures, wind direction and speed, wave heights, and the UV-Index. Most importantly, each day will be assigned a "Swim Risk" of either low, moderate, or high. The swim risk denotes the risk of dangerous currents developing at the beach in question, based on the weather pattern for that day (figure 1). If there is a high swim risk, beach visitors should plan for non-water based recreational activities, such as frisbee, a picnic, or simply spending time in the sand.
Those using the Recreational Forecast should note that a low risk does not imply that there is no risk. Swimming in the lake can be dangerous even though wave heights are low and dangerous currents are not expected. Beach visitors should NEVER swim near shoreline structures or river mouths because dangerous currents are always present near these features, even during "low risk" conditions.
Figure 1. The various 'Swim Risk' Levels.
Some offices have a graphical page for their Recreational Beach Forecasts (Figure 2), and others only have the text product (Figure 3). For a complete list of Great Lakes offices issuing the Recreational Beach Forecasts and Beach Hazards Statements, along with links to their respective pages, scroll to the bottom of this page. Contact the local office beach hazards/Marine team leader for any questions.
Figure 2. Graphical representation of the Recreational Beach Forecast from NWS Grand Rapids, MI. The coastline is color coded by the risk level (Green is low risk).
Figure 3. Example of the text version of the Recreational Beach Forecast from NWS Northern Indiana.
Limitations of the Recreational Beach Forecast
Unfortunately, the technology the NWS uses to produce the forecast only allows forecasters to assign the "swim risk" by county. As a result, the forecast may be unrepresentative of conditions if the county is large or has a complex coastline. In these situations, the swim risk forecast is tailored to the most popular or widely used beaches of the county so that it is relevant for a majority of beach users. The forecast is not issued for every county in the Great Lakes, especially those with limited beach access (rocky coastlines, primarily wooded areas, locations with extremely low beach use). Contact your local NWS office to find out which counties the Recreational Beach Forecast is issued for.
For example, if the assigned risk for a specific county is high because wave heights at a majority of the beaches are expected to range from 4 to 7 feet, the wave heights at a smaller beach that is protected within a cove may only be around 2 feet, hence the risk is lower. Those viewing the forecast should compare it to observations from the beach in question, and speak with lifeguards about the conditions upon arriving at the beach.
Beach Hazards Statements
Beach Hazards Statements are issued when the public is especially at risk to lake conditions. This is generally on a day when the swim risk is high, and a large number of people are expected to visit the beach. The Beach Hazards Statement contains additional information on the specific hazards expected at county beaches, and provides additional details on the timing and location of the most hazardous conditions (Figures 4 and 5). The statements are typically issued with the Recreational Beach Forecast early in the morning for planning purposes. Beach Hazards Statements are subject to the same limitations of the Recreational Beach Forecast, as they are issued by county not by beach. When a Beach Hazards Statement is in effect, the 'Watch, Warning, and Advisory Map" on your local NWS homepage will highlight the relevant counties in a turquoise color.
The currents that are discussed in the Beach Hazards Statement depends on the type of current related fatalities and rescues that the area is most prone to. Waves are always discussed in the statement. For a list of dangerous currents that are covered in the Beach Hazards Statements, click HERE. How specific the statement gets also depends on the complexity of the shoreline in a specific county.
Figure 4. Example of a Beach Hazards Statement from NWS Grand Rapids, MI