Editorial: Love the Lakes, but Know Their Strength
Beautiful – yet, sinister.
That’s how I remember my resident advisor describing Lake Superior during the first week of school at Northern Michigan University. NMU is a wonderful school in Marquette that sits at the foot of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula. Warning students about the perils of the lake was and likely still is standard introductory practice.
While I shy away from attributing intentional wickedness to one of the country’s most interesting and arrestingly beautiful bodies of water, Lake Superior does seem to have a reputation for being occasionally unfriendly. All of the Great Lakes, in fact, can be a bit moody given the right conditions.
As students, we were educated about some lake hazards. Posters were hung around campus and in dorms, warning students to stay off breakwalls when wind and waves were high. And we were warned to stay out of the water when lightning or quick storms were moving in. The guidance was somewhat common sense.
There was a general understanding that currents could be dangerous, but there wasn’t much in the way of how to respond should you find yourself in the clutches of a moving current. For most of us at school that year, our education on currents came at the expense of a young man.
On Labor Day, a group of Olympic-class boxers had been swimming at a beach in Marquette called Picnic Rocks. They were struggling to get back to the mainland from the small, rocky island. One of them was swept off the sandbar – or tombolo – that connects the mainland to the outcropped island. I later learned his name was Mike Nunnally, age 23. The local newspaper reported that he had exhausted his strength against the current and eventually drowned in 9-10 feet of water.
It stuck with me. If an Olympic-level athlete couldn’t fight the current and successfully make it to safety, then it definitely wasn’t a matter of muscle. Beautiful, yet sinister indeed.
Putting together this issue of Upwellings shed some light on these particular memories. In the past eight years, Michigan Sea Grant, teaming up with the National Weather Service and other partner agencies, has worked hard to educate swimmers about rip currents.
Weather and water specialists have recently recognized a different kind of coastal hazard – something referred to as channeling. It’s not what is traditionally thought of as a rip current, but does form as the result of a longshore current. At least 11 deaths have been attributed to channeling since the 1960s at Picnic Rocks alone; one of them was Mike Nunnally.
The message I received as a student, not unlike the message we’re sending with this issue of Upwellings, was enjoy the lake, appreciate its beauty, but also know what the hazards look like. I would hate to think this would discourage anyone from creating wonderful memories along our lakeshores. But it’s just like anything else – a little education can go a long way in enhancing the enjoyment.
If there is one thing you take away from this issue, let it be this: swim perpendicular to the current. Don’t fight it. Don’t panic. Dream about those lazy days splashing around in one of our Great Lakes, but think about how you would respond to an emergency situation before you go in the water.
– Stephanie Ariganello
Tuning in to the Hazards of the Great Lakes
Experts have noticed a different type of current hazard – channeling
In the Great Lakes, swimmers don’t have to worry about scraping against the razor’s edge of coral, rapidly changing tides or sharks. But the seemingly innocent lakes do present a different cadre of hazards.
Michigan Sea Grant Extension Educator Ron Kinnunen and Dave Guenther with NOAA’s National Weather Service have been working for the past eight years to bring one of the greatest Great Lakes dangers to light: rip currents. Kinnunen and Guenther have once again teamed up to educate swimmers and boaters about a particular kind of water danger.
Channeling the Current
Marquette’s Picnic Rocks is a popular swimming place; it’s also a place known for drownings. The names of 12 people who have drowned in the area are listed on a memorial sign as a poignant reminder of the potential danger of swimming at the location.
But the phenomenon at Picnic Rocks on Lake Superior isn’t exactly a rip current. Kinnunen said Picnic Rocks is an area ripe for what he and Guenther refer to as channeling. Guenther explained what that means.
“What’s happening is we have a channel current moving parallel to shore, flowing between the beach and an island,” said Guenther. “The presence of a tombolo – which is a partially submerged sandbar connector between the mainland and the offshore island – causes a convergence of flow that causes the water to speed up as it goes through the area. It’s like a river running parallel to shore, the current can be that strong.”
The danger, said Guenther is when people are swimming in the area or using that sandbar as a means of transport. People walk or swim along the sandbar to get to the island and back to the mainland.
“What happens then, when the winds pick up a little bit, that will make the waves pick up and will increase the current speeds,” explained Guenther. “When that happens, they can get pushed off the sandbar or swept into colder water on either side of the sandbar. Essentially then the swimmer panics and tries to get back to the ‘safety’ of the sandbar. The cold water and the current eventually exhaust them.”
When that happens the swimmer is usually fighting directly against the current. It’s not a matter of strength. Guenther said Olympic-level athletes have been swept off the sandbar and couldn’t successfully fight the current.
“There are at least 11 drownings in the last 40 years that we can attribute to this channel current effect,” he said. “There really hasn’t been much documentation on it yet.”
Channeling is not just exclusive to this particular area of Lake Superior. According to Kinnunen the ingredients for channel currents exist in all of the Great Lakes.
“The danger occurs when the wind amplifies these currents in a confined area, such as between the shore and a close, offshore island,” he said. A similar effect can be created with man-made structures, making docks, underwater structures and piers susceptible to strong and changing currents.
Other natural areas in the Upper Peninsula where these channel currents become dangerous can be found at Round Island located just south of Escanaba, Hog’s Island near Naubinway, Saddlebag Island near Detour. In those three areas there have been drowning incidents that mirror the drownings at Picnic Rocks.
There are potentially many more areas that will be identified as susceptible to channeling as awareness about the phenomenon is spread. As Kinnunen explained, the key elements are an island close to shore in combination with wind and current flowing in a certain direction. The presence of a sandbar can funnel the water through the area that much quicker. The sandbar also often makes the area more appealing to swimmers, which increases the traffic and exposes more people to the possible danger.
Escape and Survive
Like rip currents, the surest way to survive a channel current is to remain calm and either ride the current until it loses strength or to swim perpendicular to the flow of the water.
It helps to think of the current as a river. A swimmer will likely have a better chance of swimming across a river, cutting through the current or by riding with the current until the water calms down. The most inefficient and dangerous thing to do is try to swim against the current.
“Those caught in a channel current need to swim toward shore and should not try to swim back to the sandbar in panic as in most cases they will not be able to make progress against this current,” Kinnunen said.
Improving the Odds
There are a few simple ways of improving someone’s chances of survival at the beach, said Guenther.
With funding from the Great Lakes Observing System, Northern Michigan University students are working on an acoustical Doppler system forecasting buoy project for Picnic Rocks. The buoy would record certain data that specialists know contribute to the longshore currents that cause channeling. With the collected data, they could issue real-time forecasts that keep people out of the water. It would operate similar to the rip current beach forecast systems around the Great Lakes. The channel current forecasts could begin in July.
Also, said Guenther, beaches without lifeguards could be stocked with emergency equipment boxes.
“Often when we hear about drownings, it’s not the person who was originally in trouble who has drowned,” he said. “Every year there are stories about how someone went into the water to help someone else and they are the ones who end up victims.”
“The emergency boxes, the warning system and education about how to remain calm and how to appropriately respond to getting caught up in a current are the most effective things we can do for now,” he said.
What to do if Caught in a Current
When you can’t beat them – join them. Go with the flow. Don’t out swim it, outsmart it.
Whichever tagline grabs you, use it. The important thing is to remember not to fight the current. A rip or channel current will not pull you under. Anyone who has felt the pull of a rip current knows that keeping a cool head and going with the flow is counter to all instinct. But that, say experts, is exactly what you should do. These tips will also serve you well when swimming in the ocean.
You can escape it
- Do not panic. Remain calm.
- Ride the current until you can tell which direction it’s moving. Swim perpendicular to the current.
- Think of the current as a river. You wouldn’t try to swim upstream, against the current in a river would you?
- If you can’t figure out which direction the current is flowing, tread water and call and wave for help.
Other Common Hazards In and Around Water
It’s not that the beach is a place with danger lurking around every corner – but it is smart to be prepared for whatever conditions you will encounter, whether that’s at the lake, camping or walking down a city street.
Here are some other common hazards to be smart about:
On the Water
Storms on the Great Lakes often whip up suddenly, even when you’re expecting them. The National Weather Service reports that the vast majority of lightning injuries and deaths on boats occur on small boats with no cabin. It is crucial to listen to the weather when you are boating. If thunderstorms are forecast, don’t go out. If you are out on the water and skies are threatening, get back to land and find a safe building or safe vehicle in which to shelter.
Boats with cabins offer a safer, but not perfect environment. Safety is increased further if the boat has a properly installed lightning protection system. If you are inside the cabin, stay away from metal and all electrical components. Stay off the radio unless it is an emergency.
Despite the fact that it is made of rubber, a rubber vessel is not safe to be in when lightning is occurring.
At the Beach
While spending a day at the beach, you notice the skies darkening and hear distant thunder. Do you run to the beach shelter or head for the car?
The safer option, reports the National Weather Service, is always the car. A safe place is one that is fully enclosed, not just a shelter. Wait 30 minutes until after the last rumble of thunder before going back to the beach.
For more information, see: Lightning Safety
Hypothermia can happen on land or in water. However, cold water quickly ups the ante by accelerating the onset and progression because body heat is lost much faster in cold water than in cold air.
Hypothermia is a physical condition that occurs when the body’s core temperature falls below a normal 98.6° F (37° C) to 95° F (35° C) or cooler. It can happen during any season, depending on the conditions to which a person is exposed. Surface water temperatures in western Lake Superior rarely exceed 70° F. Lake Superior’s average surface temperature is about 40° F (4° C). The average person can survive about 1-4 hours in water temperatures in that range.
Hypothermia affects the brain, heart, lungs, and other vital organs. Even a mild case of hypothermia diminishes a victim’s physical and mental abilities, thus increasing the risk of accidents. Signs that a person is nearing a hypothermic state include shivering, poor coordination, disorientation and mental sluggishness.
In cold water, conserving body heat is essential for survival and for increasing your chances of being rescued. Keep this in mind:
- Wear a personal flotation device (PFD)
- Keep clothing on
- Get as much of your body out of the water as possible
- Remain still unless a floating object, a person or the shore is nearby
- Keep a positive mental outlook — a will to survive really does matter
For more detailed information, see: Hypothermia
Displacement Waves and Seiches
In the Great Lakes, we don’t have tides, but we do have unpredictable water-level changes called seiches. “Seiche” (pronounced saysh) is a French word that means to sway back and forth, which is what happens to lake levels when influenced by particular storm components.
One example is from July 2, 1956. Near Ludington, Lake Michigan suddenly rose 10 feet and 150 feet past the normal water line on the beach. The rising water swept anglers off the pier while beach-goers and swimmers struggled to get away from the water. After the first surge of water, the lake receded 15 feet below the normal water line and then again came splashing back in a big wave.
Not all seiches are that dramatic, but they do account for water levels rising or dropping without much warning. They are caused by storms moving over the lake. When the temperature drops and the wind changes direction the water in the lake is disturbed and begins to move in the same direction the storm is moving. For example when a storm moves from west to east, water is moved by the storm into the eastern end of the lake. The water level in the eastern end of the lake is raised. This is called a storm surge.
After a storm moves past the lake, the piled up water moves toward the opposite end of the lake. The water sloshes from one end of the lake to the other until the water level is returned to normal.
Sometimes there is no warning for seiches, but if the water level is changing unpredictably or quickly, it is best to stay away from the water’s edge.
Extension Educator Ron Kinnunen recalled a mother describing a close call with her swimming child a few years back. The child had been playing along the shore one moment and the next it seemed like the water swelled and pulled the child in with it. What was really going on, Kinnunen said, is water displacement.
Displacements can be felt mostly along rivers when freighters or big, heavy ships make their way through. The weight and size of the boats create a wave action through displacing water. That displacement can cause the water levels to go up or down without much warning.
“It’s especially noticeable along the St. Marys River,” said Kinnunen. “But it does happen elsewhere too. If you can see a freighter in a more narrow body of water, it’s usually a pretty good indication that there will be some kind of displacement wave action.”
Kinnunen summed up lake hazards: “It’s not that dangerous when you know about these things and know how to respond appropriately. We just have to do a better job at letting people know what to expect when they swim or boat here.”
Of course, most memories made on the Great Lakes are those of happy times and wonderful hours wiled away. However, every now and then the lakes remind us of their raw power and those lessons are not soon forgotten. Several Sea Grant staff recalled close calls at the hands of the lakes, ranging from tragic to inconvenient and everything in between. Here are some select stories:
My nephew, Kevin, who was 19 at the time, went to Silver Beach County Park in St. Joseph with his friend Jared to go swimming for the day. They drove from Fort Wayne that morning. They had no idea that 21-year-old David Lambert had jumped off the South Pier in St. Joseph the evening before and was still missing. Both Kevin and Jared ignored warning signs along the pier and jumped into the water to swim. They were quickly overcome by strong currents near the pier. Kevin owes his life to a man named Paul Schultz who climbed down the ladder on the pier and held onto Kevin’s hand until the Coast Guard could rescue him. Fortunately, Kevin and Jared made it home safely. However, David Lambert’s body was discovered near the pier, about 20 feet under water later that same day. So many people have died as a result of ignoring warning signs, not paying attention to weather conditions and simply being overconfident in their swimming abilities. This is why it is so important to keep telling people to have fun swimming and boating, but please pay attention to Great Lakes currents. They are dangerous.
– Elizabeth LaPorte
Director of Communications and Education Services
A Series of Unfortunate Events
I haven’t really had any brushes with death, but I’ve had a few reminders. My kayak flipped over for the first time last November in Lake Michigan and cooled me off a bit. I also had some tense moments on Lake St. Clair involving waterspouts and a small fishing boat, and was temporarily stranded on Garden Island after a seiche left our Boston Whaler perched on dry rocks. Lightning once hit a tree less than 100 feet from where I was wading. It was an odd experience, as I didn’t hear any thunder or see the strike but instinctively jumped onto a nearby dock and then saw the smoking bark that had been blasted off the nearby tree.
– Dan O’Keefe
Southwest Michigan Extension Educator
Always Check the Weather Report
When Sea Grant asked staff to recall close calls they’ve had in the Great Lakes, three of them pointed to Walt Hoagman’s storm squall adventure as a classic example of the unpredictable nature of the lakes. The following is an abridged version of Walt’s story from a 1997 edition of Upwellings featuring squalls.
When the Great Summer Storm of July 13, 1995 hit, I was crossing Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay with my wife Athelia and our black lab Bunker in our 24-foot aluminum cabin cruiser, Misty Blue. Our course was Caseville to Tawas, across 30 miles of open water. Normally I would make a weather check before any crossing, but that day I did not, much to my later regret.
After heading out, Walt and his wife noticed the hazy sky getting a lot darker as they progressed.
I will never forget the view out the windshield. The sky had turned the deepest purple I’d ever seen. With the wind accelerating from zero to frantic in five minutes, the surface of the water started to heave, the wind blowing the top off each new wave, the spray a horizontal stream of hissing water. The wind built up, howling like a locomotive.
Within 15 minutes, six-foot seas slammed our boat. Rain poured down so hard, the wipers were nearly useless. It became extremely dark, but blinding lightning bolts split the gloom every 10-20 seconds. Thunder cracked and rumbled. The winds continued above 50 miles per hour and raging seas built into seething whitecaps. When the wind finally slacked after about another 45 minutes, I got on the radio and reported our position to the Tawas Coast Guard, telling them we were all right, but not out of it yet.
Suddenly, I felt a cold blast of air from our starboard beam, flinging all the papers and charts off the dash. The wind had shifted 90 degrees to the northeast. It blew violently, and soon the resulting cross-sea made a real mess of the surface. Within 20 minutes the confused seas caused opposing breaking crests to climb one another and smash apart, creating the “Christmas Tree” effect described by some sailors in Great Lakes storms. These “trees” were 10 to 12 feet high, visibility was only 50 to 100 feet, and we really thought we had bought the farm this time. Both of us got extremely cold, with goose bumps making us look like plucked turkeys.
After a period of time, the storm began to ease and the Hoagmans headed toward dock. Four hours after they set out, the sky cleared, the wind died and they made it back to port. However, as they ported, their boat was almost pulled out to sea by the rapidly changing water level. They managed to get the boat out of the water and were finally safe.
What a day and what a lesson! The most obvious lesson, as everyone is quick to remind me – why didn’t I turn on my radio? They are right. There had been a storm forecast, though the storm’s size caught everyone by surprise. I hope my story gives caution to boaters of every ilk that trust their fortune to warm sunny days on the lakes. Beware the hot, hazy day, would be my first caution; anything can happen.
– Walt Hoagman
Former Northeast Michigan Extension Educator
For more accounts of clashes with rip currents, visit: Real Life
News From Michigan Sea Grant
Eat This, Not That
Southeast Extension Educator Mary Bohling, Researcher Donna Kashian and volunteers were recently posting fish consumption signs along the Detroit River. Kashian was the lead researcher on a fish consumption advisory integrated assessment funded through Michigan Sea Grant. The initial findings of the research helped guide the Michigan Department of Community Health in creating advisory signs for those eating fish caught in the Detroit River.
More than 40 signs will be posted from the north boundary of Detroit throughout downtown, and south into Ecorse, Grosse Pointe, Riverview, Trenton, Wyandotte and Monroe.
Chemical contamination has made it unsafe to eat several types of fish from the river, including catfish and carp. The signs depict how to remove fat from fillets, which can eliminate some contamination. They also direct people to area lakes where catfish and carp can be caught that are safer to eat and less contaminated.
- For information on the research project, see: Fish consumption
- Brochures with more detailed information are also being distributed in conjunction with the signs. To order, see: Bookstore
- For more on state regulations, see: Fish advisory
Protecting a Great Lakes Fish
Sturgeon for Tomorrow is in the midst of another year of protecting spawning sturgeon as they make their way up the Black River in northeast Michigan. Typically, sturgeon spawn in three runs throughout late April to early June. The group, in conjunction with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment, watch the banks in shifts.
The efforts in northeast Michigan have “spawned” guarding sites elsewhere in the state with volunteers now patrolling rivers near Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE) and Michigan State University researchers also net and tag the sturgeon in the river to learn more about the fishes.
For more information, see: Sturgeon
MBIA President Recognized
Van Snider, President of the Michigan Boating Industries Association (MBIA), was recognized with an award at a recent Michigan Sea Grant meeting. It was Snider’s leadership qualities that led Sea Grant to honor him by naming this and future Sea Grant awards the Van Snider Award. Snider has led MBIA for 20 years and is a strong advocate for the boating industry.
For more information, see: News release
Explore on the Water
The Summer Discovery Cruise program offers cruises that are two to four hours long that explore different aspects of the Great Lakes. Those aboard can learn about things like eagles, islands, rum-runners, lighthouses, ROVs, Bob-Lo Island, fish, shipwrecks and more. Several new cruises have been added this year, like Wind, Waves & Weather; Detroit River Revival; and Handy Billy (check our website to learn what a Handy Billy is!).
Cruises are open to the public (ages 6 and up), with registration available for individuals and groups. Cost is $15 for adults and $10 for children under 18. Longer cruises, like the Big River Meander (4 hours) are an additional $5.
The voyages leave from Lake Erie Metropark June 19 through July 11, and from Metro Beach Metropark July 28 through August 15, with sail times of 10am, 2pm and 6pm most days.
To register or for more information, see: Cruises
Michigan Sea Grant successfully completed its program site review in April. Each Sea Grant program across the country hosts one of these reviews every four years. This is part of a rigorous evaluation process that includes development of four-year strategic and implementation plans, annual self-reporting, annual review by the National Sea Grant Office and an omnibus review of all 30 Sea Grant programs at the end of the four-year cycle. The point is to make sure the programs are working efficiently and effectively toward meeting strategic plans that are developed in conjunction with stakeholder input.
Fish by Numbers
Michigan Sea Grant, in partnership with fisheries agencies and stakeholder organizations, wrapped up another round of public information workshops offering current research and information related to the regional status of Great Lakes fisheries. These workshops are open to the public, and provide valuable information for anglers, charter captains, resource professionals, and other interested stakeholders. For more information, see: Lake Huron | Lake Michigan
A Mighty Wind
West Michigan coastal communities, like other communities worldwide, are in the midst of assessing the benefits and challenges of locating wind energy farms. The West Michigan Wind Assessment research project, funded by Michigan Sea Grant, recently published a brief on one global aspect of the research.
In Issue Brief 1: Global Lessons for West Michigan the team examined different zoning and permitting regulations and compared the Michigan situation to regulation approaches throughout the world. It is the first in a series of at least four.
For more information, see: Brief #1 (PDF)