A warm winter and spring and torrid summer weather are likely to blame for the high drowning death toll in the Great Lakes so far in 2012.
According to Dave Benjamin, executive director of Public Relations for the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, there have been 74 drowning deaths in the Great Lakes that were caused by rip currents. There are four more cases pending, and the total is well above normal for this time of year. Drowning totals in recent years have been 87 fatal drownings in 2011 and 74 fatal drownings in 2010.
A 42-year swimming and surfing veteran on Lake Michigan, Benjamin survived a near-drowning while surfing on the lake. He wants to share the message of the dangers to help others who may find themselves in the same situation.
When asked about the high death toll this year, Benjamin responded, “It’s most likely the warmer weather, more people going to the beach, going to lakefronts to walk the pier.”
The majority of the Great Lakes did not freeze during winter 2011-2012, due to unusually warm winter weather. Unseasonable warmth continued into the spring with the jet stream far to the north across Canada, and people started heading out to the Great Lakes much earlier in the year. For instance, average March temperatures in Chicago were nearly 16 degrees above normal.
The surge of people hitting the Great Lakes beaches continued into the summer. Average Chicago temperatures were five (5) degrees above normal for June, and seven (7) degrees above normal for July. Water temps along most Great Lakes beaches have been warmer as well. This means more beachgoers were actually wading or swimming, rather than just hanging out on the sand. Unfortuately, more bodies in the water often equals a higher number of drowning fatalities.
A widely unsung danger of the Great Lakes is the rip current. Many people are unaware that the dangers of rip currents exist in the Great Lakes just like they do along the East and West Coasts of the U.S. It’s important to remember the Great Lakes are vast expanses of water, much like inland seas, and need to be respected as such.
Rip currents form when waves break over a sandbar or near the shoreline. This causes water to pile up between breaking waves and the beach. This water returns to the open water by rushing away from the shore in a narrow channel. Fast-hitting waves and on-shore winds compound the danger of rip currents.
“The Great Lakes often have blow-out wave conditions, meaning that the wind and the waves [are] directly on shore. And the waves are every three to six seconds apart and the waves never stop, you don’t get a break,” Benjamin described. Fast-moving currents can catch swimmers and bathers and cause them to be pulled away from the shoreline. Just like falling into fast moving water along a river, it’s not possible to fight these currents. It’s easier (and much safer) to ride the rip current out, and swim back to shore after you’ve gotten free of it.
The most important point to remember if you are caught in a rip current is to avoid panic. The elevated heart rate and adrenaline rush that go along with panic will not help the situation, and while it’s extremely difficult to remain calm in a crisis situation, you must concentrate on floating and keeping your head above water. Like running from a grizzly bear, fighting an offshore current is useless – the statistics state that you will only die tired. Keep calm, try to float on your back, breathe evenly, and wait for the current to slacken enough so that you can turn and swim back towards the beach.
Celebrate this wonderful summer weather and the week ahead by enjoying the beach, taking a nice cool swim, and returning alive! Tight lines!