2012 Swim Season: Rip Current and Channel Current Incident Summary
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.
This year was slightly above normal in terms of rip current incidents on the Great Lakes compared to the 10-year average of 12 rip current incidents per year (2002-2011 average, Great Lakes Current Incident Database). As usual, Lake Michigan was responsible for a majority of the incidents, with its eastern shores favorably aligned to the prevailing wind flow and its popularity with tourists. In the Great Lakes, channel current incidents occur on average once per year. This year, there were no channel current incidents reported. To read about the Great Lakes Current Incident Database, and how the rescue and fatality information for rip and channel currents is collected please go HERE. Please remember that high short period waves (high waves incoming at a rapid rate) may have played a factor in many of these incidents, and should be considered equally as dangerous as rip currents.
Rip Current and Channel Current Related Incidents: How 2012 Compares
Rip current and channel current related incidents across the Great Lakes, 2002-2012. Data from the GLCID, 2012. Rip Fatal is fatal rip current drownings, where as rip rescue is non-fatal rip current rescues. Channel F and Channel R stand for channel current fatalities and channel current rescues, respectively.
2012 Rip current related incidents, sorted by lake. Lake Michigan typically sees a higher number of incidents due to its popularity and favorable orientation to onshore winds (which can lead to rip current development). There were no channel current incidents reported this year. Data is from the GLCID, 2012.
About The Victims
As is typical of rip current incidents on the ocean (and of the Great Lakes), most of the victims were male this year. Out of the 67 total incidents in the database for 2012, 25 of them were male and 19 were female. For 23 of the incidents, the gender of the victim was unknown. The average age of the victims this year was 22 years old, also very typical of rip current related incidents. Contrary to past years, most of the victims were locals to the beach at which they drowned or were rescued. In the GLCID, local is defined as living within 20 miles of the beach. Of the victims we knew the hometown of, 60% were local. Normally, the victims are found to be tourists that are unfamiliar with the beach.
Conditions Observed During 2012 Rip Current Incidents
Most of the rip current incidents on the Great Lakes occurred near shoreline structures, which is normal when compared with the past years data. Unusually high this summer was the number of rip current incidents that occurred near water outlets (such as a river mouth). Typically the Great Lakes only sees one or two of these incidents per year, whereas this year there were 8 that occurred near a power plant outlet and 6 that occurred at a beach with an outlet (however it was not known if the victims were actually swimming near the outlet).
This graph shows the locations where rip current incidents occurred in 2012. Structural rip currents are those that occur near piers or breakwalls, SB or Sandbar stands for sandbar-type rip currents (or classic rip currents that form with complex sandbar features), and outlet is a rip current that occurs at the mouth of a river or another similar water outlet. When SB/out. or SB/Struct. is written, it means that the beach the incident occurred at had both types of rip current conducive features, however it was not known which type was the cause for the incident.
Wind and wave conditions were typical of rip current incidents in the past years. The most commonly observed wind speed category during the 2012 incidents was 20 to 30 mph winds. Many times strong southerly winds lead to beach problems, as the southerly winds typically bring warmer temperatures and occur with fair skies. In addition, many beaches on the eastern coast of Lake Michigan have break walls that extend east to west into the lake. This set up can lead to the development of structural rip currents on the south side of the break wall, and crashing waves. In addition, once a cold front passes, gusty west to northwesterly winds can lead to sandbar-type rip currents (more classic set-up, with westerly onshore flow, similar to the ocean) or more structural rip currents on the north side of the breakwalls.
Wind speeds observed during the rip current related incidents of 2012. Most incidents occurred when winds were in the 20 to 30 mph range. Data from the GLCID, 2012.
On the ocean and in the Great Lakes, higher waves lead to rip current development. This can also been seen in the 2012 rip current incident wave data. Most Great Lakes rip current incidents occurred when waves were in the 4 to 7 ft. range. There were 9 incidents that occurred when waves were 2 feet or less, and 7 of those incidents occurred near river mouths/outlets, which can enhance weak rip current development under seemingly benign conditions. Remember, these are rip current RELATED incidents, meaning high waves with short periods likely contributed to the drowning deaths/rescues as well.
Wave heights observed during rip current incidents are shown above. A majority of the incidents occurred when wave heights were greater than 2 feet. Data from the GLCID, 2012.
Lastly, a look at the wave period shows results similar to past years. Most of the incidents occurred when waves had a period between 3 and 5 seconds. This is one area where rip currents on the ocean are different from rip currents on the Great Lakes. Typically, rip currents in the ocean occur during longer wave periods, which is actually defined as longer than 9 seconds. Only 3 incidents occurred when the wave period reached close to 'long period' criteria, at 6 to 8 seconds. This generally shorter wave period (mostly 3 to 5 seconds) results in an additional hazard to the rip currents-as most people cannot recover while fighting a current and these rapidly incoming high waves.
Wave Periods Observed During Rip Current Incidents 2012. Most of the incidents occurred with wave periods in the 3 to 5 second ranges.
Data from the GLCID, 2012.
To learn more about what weather and wave conditions lead to rip current development, see our webpage: Rip Current Development
Most Hazardous Day of 2012:
August 5, 2012: 6 Rip Current Related Fatalities, 7 Rip Current Related Rescues (13 total incidents)
On this particular day, a low pressure system moving from northern Ontario into Hudson Bay brought two cold fronts across the Great Lakes. In addition, high pressure approaching from the plains extended a ridge across the region. This brought strong southerly, westerly, and northwesterly winds of 15 to 25 mph to the Great Lakes region throughout the day. These winds generated wave heights of 3 to 7 feet. NWS offices around the Great Lakes know this pattern to be trouble for beach goers, so areas along the shoreline had a moderate to high risk of rip currents in effect, and general statements about the hazards associated with high surf.
By the end of the day, there was a total of 13 rip current related incidents. There were two incidents that occurred on Lake Ontario around 8:30 am at a beach where there was a breakwall and complex sandbar features. It is unknown whether the victims were swimming at the breakwall or not, however the wind/wave direction was directly onshore (out of the south, ahead of the front).
Beach where the two men drowned from a rip current in Scarborough, Canada on Lake Ontario.
Image from Googlemaps, 2012.
Later that morning and into the early afternoon time frame, winds on southern Lake Michigan were out of the northwest at 15 to 25 mph, with waves in the 4 to 7 ft range. This set the stage for two rip current drownings and two rescues along the southeastern shores of the Lake, when a man noticed two children in distress from the current and jumped in to rescue them. The children survived, but the man did not. For this particular instance, it was not known whether the victims were caught in a rip current enhanced by the river outlet at the beach or a rip current that developed as a result of complex sandbars.