The Great Lakes are all dangerous, but Lake Michigan is the deadliest for one big reason.
The dangerous secret behind Lake Michigan is the lake’s configuration. It is 307 miles in length north to south, with uninterrupted shores on east and west sides. This exposes the shorelines to deadly longshore and rip currents.
The numbers don’t lie. Since 2002, these longshore and rip currents were responsible for 82 drownings and 243 rescues of swimmers. To put it into perspective, that’s more than double the 126 reports (62 drownings and 64 rescues) in the four other Great Lakes combined.
These chilling statistics reveal that over the last thirteen years, Lake Michigan has averaged six drowning deaths per year related to these currents. Meanwhile, Lake Erie has averaged two deaths per year, Lake Huron one death, and lakes Superior and Ontario less than one over the same time period.
The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project has a different measure of the lake’s deadliness. When looking beyond current-related deaths and also adding cold water deaths, large waves, and fatalities due to other recreational activities, Lake Michigan leads the other Great Lakes with 24 drownings in 2014.
Longshore currents occur when winds blow parallel to the shore or along piers, and build waves down the length of the shoreline. Waves can potentially build and amplify for hundreds of miles before reaching shore in this scenario.
Rip currents, on the other hand, form when winds blow perpendicular to the shore. Eventually, the water pushed against the shore has to escape back to the lake, which causes a surge that can carry swimmers out into deeper water.
Bob Dukesherer, a senior forecaster and marine program leader for the weather service office in Grand Rapids, Michigan, stated;
There are layers upon layers of threats that could pose problems for swimmers…Its physical makeup helps create large waves, especially when winds blow from the north and west.
Another reason Lake Michigan has more current-related incidents is because there are more major cities along its sandy shores than the more inhospitable shores of the other Great Lakes. More cities mean more people.
Dave Benjamin, executive director of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, stated,
More and more is spent to lead people to the water, and when people drown, there’s a certain stigma. You blame the victim and people think it can’t happen to them…But many people don’t have the basic swimming abilities to save their lives, and people don’t know drowning is one of the leading causes of accidental deaths.
Swimmers are encouraged to check the National Weather Service’s interactive beach forecast website to view current lake conditions before heading to the water.
All photos via MLive