When asked to describe "dangerous currents," individuals generally use a few adjectives to describe this phenomenon including: beaches, high winds, large waves and oceans, much to the dismay of coastal managers in the great lakes region. Contrary to popular belief, dangerous currents are a very real threat to Great Lakes beachgoers ("Research team warns against overlooking Great Lakes' Currents"). Since basin-wide monitoring began in 2002, more than 307 people have been rescued and 144 have drowned as a result of dangerous currents ("Great Lakes Current Incident Database"). Despite this statistic, the popular assumption that the Great Lakes' coasts are less dangerous than their salty counterparts continues to propagate. As a result, people are unknowingly placing themselves in harm's way.
For example, in the summer of 2012, tragedy struck the city of Port Washington, Wisconsin when a young teenager was pulled away from shore by a rip current and subsequently drowned. The community was shocked by the event, with even the city Mayor remarking that he "never thought of it [Lake Michigan] as hazardous." In response to this event, researchers at the University of Wisconsin – Madison set out to develop a real-time warning system that would detect dangerous waves and currents, and display their location and severity on an online map ("Lake Michigan death spurs action on rip current awareness"). This warning system called the Integrated Nowcast/Forecast Operation System or INFOS, is now available for three frequently travelled beaches including one in Port Washington.
Despite this and other technological advances which have made dangerous current detection more reliable throughout the Great Lakes region, the number of deaths resulting from dangerous currents has continued to rise ("Big increase in the number of fatal drownings in the Great Lakes"). Between 2010 and 2014, the cumulative average of annual drowning deaths and rescues as a result of dangerous currents nearly doubled in comparison to the same statistics reported from 2002-2009 ("Great Lakes Current Incident Database"). In an effort to slow this steady increase in water hazard deaths, municipal and state initiatives to place water safety and rescue equipment on beaches have begun to form. In Port Washington, Wisconsin, outreach materials and rescue equipment including informational signs, rescue throw bags and life rings have been placed on the beach to help prevent future loss of life as a result of dangerous currents ("Lake Michigan death spurs action on rip current awareness"), and similar efforts have been made along Michigan's western coastline. That said, across the entire Great Lakes basin emergency rescue equipment is still in high demand.
Recognizing this need, a regional water safety collaborative including experts from Illinois-Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin Sea Grant and Coastal Zone Management Programs are working together to increase water safety throughout the region. With the help of a grant from NOAA's Coastal Storms Program, the project team developed the "Be Current Smart" campaign which includes specific messaging, factsheets, and videos targeted towards increasing the public understanding of: what dangerous currents are, as well as how to identify and escape them. In addition, the project team has selected beaches along the Great Lakes' coast to install more than 2,000 pieces of emergency rescue equipment including the supplies necessary to save individuals from dangerous currents. This regional interagency partnership is the first of its kind to work together to target locations for rescue equipment and to enhance public understanding of dangerous currents.
Image Credit: 1. Rescue Throw Ring, Courtesy of Michigan Sea Grant; 2. Rescue Throw Ring, Courtesy of Michigan Sea Grant; 3. Mouth of Port Washington, Courtesy of Bridget Faust; 4. Mouth of Port Washington 2, Courtesy of Bridget Faust; 5. Beach in Port Washington, Courtesy of Bridget Faust.