There are many different currents in the Great Lakes and some are dangerous

Different kinds of dangerous currents can be found in the Great Lakes that claim lives every year. From 2002 to 2012, there were 413 dangerous current-related incidents in the Great Lakes resulting in 120 rip current-related fatalities.

Michigan State University Extension, Michigan Sea Grant, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the National Weather Service coordinated a series of Dangerous Currents Workshops in three different locations in Michigan in June. The workshops helped increase knowledge about dangerous currents by educating local, state and federal parks personnel, emergency responders, volunteers, researchers, educators and others about Great Lakes beach hazards.

Megan Dodson with the National Weather Service presented information at these workshops on the different kinds of dangerous currents that can be found in the Great Lakes that claims lives every year. From 2002 to 2012, there were 413 dangerous current-related incidents in the Great Lakes resulting in 120 rip current-related fatalities. The majority of these incidents occurred on Lake Michigan. When wave heights were over three feet, 68 percent of these incidents occurred.

Rip currents form when waves break over a sandbar near the shoreline, piling up water between the breaking waves and the beach. One of the ways this water returns to the open water is to form a rip current, a narrow but powerful stream of water moving swiftly away from shore as it breaks through the sandbar. To escape a rip current, swimmers should go with the flow of the water until the current dissipates and swim parallel to the shoreline. Once out of the current, swimmers should then head back toward the shore.

There are also structural currents, which is a rip current that forms near a shoreline structure. These currents develop as a longshore current intersects a breakwall or peninsula where swimmers can be moved lakeward parallel to these structures. When caught in a structural current there is no easy escape route. That is why it is best to avoid swimming near breakwalls.

A channel current flows parallel to shore, between the beach and an island. A channel current forms when the presence of a partially submerged sandbar connector between the mainland and an offshore island causes the flow of water to speed up as it goes between the island and the shore. A channel current looks like a river running parallel to shore. To get out of a channel current, swimmers should move toward shore, rather than swimming back to the unstable sandbar.

Swimmers should be aware of the kind of dangerous currents that exist in the areas where they swim to help avoid getting into a life-threatening situation. When wave heights exceed three feet, swimmers should use extreme caution or avoid swimming.

The Michigan Coastal Zone Management Program – MDEQ, provided financial assistance for these workshops through a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and U.S. Department of Commerce. The Michigan Coastal Zone Management Program partners with local governments, non-profit organizations and universities to promote wise management and prudent use of the cultural and natural resources within our coastal boundary.

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