Month: May 2017

North Harbour Contamination Topic of June 7 PAC Meeting

Thunder Bay North Harbour
A Google Earth Image of the northern portion of Thunder Bay Harbour with Boulevard Lake top left and the harbour breakwall lower right. The June 7th meeting will focus on an overview of the contamination in North Harbour, work completed toward cleanup, and planned efforts to move forward with the cleanup project.

The Public Advisory Committee for the Thunder Bay North Harbour Remedial Action Plan will be holding a meeting on June 7, 2017 at Lakehead University. Remedial Action Plans deal with environmental impairments in Areas of Concern on the Great Lakes. This includes chemical, physical, and biological degradation resulting in pollution and impacts to habitat.

Public Advisory Committee Objectives:

  • represent the range of community interests and concerns
  • promote community awareness, understanding and support to implement environmental cleanup in Thunder Bay Harbour
  • assist government agencies in implementing a public information program for the general public
  • act as a liaison to member organizations
  • provide a basis for generating community support for implementing the remedial action plan, or Thunder Bay Harbour cleanup plan.

The June 7th meeting will focus on an overview of the contamination of the North Harbour in the Thunder Bay Area of Concern, work completed toward cleaning up the contamination, and planned efforts to move forward with the project. The meeting will begin at 7:00 p.m. in the Advanced Technology and Academic Centre (ATAC) building room 3004 (located in the NW corner of 3rd floor).  Free evening parking at Lakehead University is available right beside the ATAC building.

A detailed agenda will be posted as soon as it becomes available. A map showing the meeting location is accessible via the link bel0w.

 Map of Lakehead University Campus showing ATAC building
(enter the university from Balmoral at Beverly)


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Michigan Sea Grant, Wayne State University Host International Freshwater Research Conference

USGS Research Ship "Kiyii"
The US Geological Survey Research Ship “Kiyi” off Thunder Cape near Thunder Bay, Ontario. The ship is used for Great Lakes research on Lake Superior.





From a media release dated May 11, 2017:

Freshwater researchers from the Great Lakes region and around the world will gather at Cobo Center in downtown Detroit May 15-19 for the 60th annual conference of the International Association for Great Lakes Research (IAGLR).

More than 1,000 participants will spend the week in Detroit, networking with colleagues and delivering more than 820 oral and poster presentations highlighting scientific findings in the areas of freshwater health and management.

“We are excited to co-host IAGLR’s 60th anniversary conference,” notes Jim Diana, conference co-chair and Michigan Sea Grant director. “With ongoing discussions about science and its relation to policy and management, meetings like this are more important than ever.”

The event’s two plenary talks will focus on change in the Great Lakes. On Tuesday, Joan Rose, Homer Nowlin Endowed Chair in Water Research at Michigan State University and winner of the 2016 Stockholm Water Prize, will discuss areas of study and investment needed to protect or restore high water quality in the Great Lakes. On Thursday, Cameron Davis, vice president of GEI Consultants and former senior advisor to the U.S. EPA administrator, will discuss the ways political, economic, social, and other systems impact the Great Lakes ecosystem.

The 2017 Michigan Seafood Summit — an annual event hosted by Michigan Sea Grant that brings together fisheries professionals, businesses, chefs, and the public for a day to talk about Michigan seafood — will be held in conjunction with this year’s IAGLR conference. On Tuesday, Summit sessions will provide information on a wide range of topics, including aquaculture systems, commercial fishery management, and local seafood as an emerging product. A Michigan seafood banquet will be held at The Atheneum in Greektown in the evening and is open to the public.

IAGLR session topics include aquatic invasive and nuisance species, Areas of Concern, and fisheries and fishery management. Additionally, a session discussing Jim Diana’s influence on Great Lakes research and management over his 35-plus-year career is scheduled for Wednesday. Diana is retiring from his role as professor at University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, but will continue on as director of Michigan Sea Grant. A U-M alumni, students, and friends celebration and tribute to Diana will be held at Hockeytown Cafe later that evening.

Other session themes include:
·       Benthic Biology and Ecology
·       Genomics, Microbiology, and Emerging Technologies
·       Governance, Education, and Outreach
·       Monitoring, Modeling, and Analysis
·       Nutrients, HABS, and Emerging Contaminant Stressors in the Great Lakes
·       Physical Processes and Limnology
·       Remote Sensing and Detection Techniques
·       Rural and Urban Planning and Ecology
·       General Contributions
·       Great Lakes Governors and Premiers: Monitoring, Modeling, and Analysis

“Detroit’s Cobo Center is a great location for IAGLR,” notes Donna R. Kashian, associate professor at Wayne State University and conference co-chair. “Cobo sits on the banks of the Detroit River, an international boundary and the link between the upper and lower Great Lakes. Both the city and our lakes have overcome great obstacles and have experienced renewed health and vitality. They are a symbol of what can be when science, policy, and the people come together for a desired outcome. Wayne State University is proud to co-host such an event!”

The IAGLR awards banquet will be held Thursday, May 18, 6-9 p.m. aboard the Detroit Princess departing from Cobo Center. IAGLR’s Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented at this time, as well as various awards and scholarships honoring young scientists and outstanding research contributions.

Walk-in participants and media are welcome and must register onsite. A welcome reception to kick off the conference will be held Monday, May 15, 6-9 p.m. in the Cobo River Atrium.

View the complete conference program at
Follow the conference hashtag on Twitter: #iaglr2017

IAGLR is a scientific organization comprised of researchers studying the Laurentian Great Lakes, other large lakes of the world, and their watersheds, as well as those with an interest in such research. IAGLR publishes multiple issues per year of the peer-reviewed Journal of Great Lakes Research.

Wayne State University is a premier urban research institution offering more than 380 academic programs through 13 schools and colleges to more than 27,000 students.

Michigan Sea Grant helps foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research, and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University and its MSU Extension, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 33 university-based programs.


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Superior Watershed Partnership Announces Climate Change Corps

The Great Lakes Conservation Corps
The Superior Watershed Partnership is announcing the expansion of the Great Lakes Conservation Corps with the addition of the Climate Conservation Corps to help coastal communities adapt to climate change and increase community resiliency to more extreme weather events.

The Superior Watershed Partnership (SWP) is announcing the expansion of the Great Lakes Conservation Corps (GLCC) with the addition of the Climate Conservation Corps (CCC). GLCC crews work on a wide variety of conservation, restoration and recreation projects while the Climate Conservation Corps is specifically dedicated to projects that help coastal communities adapt to climate change and increase community resiliency to more extreme weather events.

The Superior Watershed Partnership and Land Trust is an award winning Great Lakes nonprofit organization that has set national records for pollution prevention and implements innovative, science-based programs that achieve documented, measurable results.

This summer the SWP will have 6 mobile crews, comprised of 22 highly trained women and men working on projects to benefit Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron! Projects include; stream restoration, dune restoration, coastal wetland restoration, trail building, wildlife habitat restoration, tree planting, native plant restoration, invasive plant removal, community projects and more!

According to Emily Goodman, the SWP Corps Coordinator,”Much of the real work of Great Lakes protection and restoration involves hand labor. It takes people, not just heavy equipment, to properly restore a riverbank, or dune, or wetland. GLCC crews are helping to build more resilient coastal communities.”

GLCC crews are trained and supervised by experienced crew leaders with a related college degree and are equipped with a truck, tools, safety equipment, and camping gear for overnight stays at remote sites if needed. All crew members wear uniforms and receive Red Cross First Aid along with other project-specific training prior to each field season.

Coming soon; the Lake Superior Volunteer Corps! For more information please contact the Superior Watershed Partnership.

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Angelique Mott: Lake Superior Survival Story Inspires Novella, Film

A harrowing tale of survival on the shores of Isle Royale will be brought to the screen by local filmmaker Michelle Desrosier. During the winter of 1845-1846, Indigenous woman Angelique Mott and her husband were left for dead on a remote island off Isle Royale by copper miners. After her husband perished to hunger, Angelique managed to survive with small rations and survival prowess. Using James R. Stevens’ novella Angelique Abandoned, Desrosier is using the shores of Lake Superior to tell Angelique’s stunning story of persistence against natural, physical, and psychological odds.

Isle Royale is an island 72 km (45 mile) long, 14 km (9 mile) wide located in northwest Lake Superior, off the shores of Michigan. The Isle is the largest natural island in Lake Superior and surrounded by 450 smaller islands, which collectively make up Isle Royale National Park. Angelique and her husband were abandoned to the shore of one of these islands during the summer of 1845, and only Angelique managed to survive starvation and harsh natural elements until the spring of 1946. Angelique was only 17 when they were abandoned.

According to an article done by Emma Christensen at, Stevens first published his novella in 2009. After conducting interviews and research with Indigenous elders and artists, he wrote a fictionalized account of her story, basing it on accounts Angelique herself gave about her ordeal. The second edition of Angelique Abandoned features illustration by Cree Stevens, an Anishinabekwe (Ojibwe) and Cree artist located in Thunder Bay.

Desrosier adapted Angelique Abandoned into a screenplay. Her work won Best Screenplay at the 2015 Northern Ontario Music and Film Awards, and was awarded money from the inaugural CBC Breaking Barriers Film Fund. The film, titled Angelique’s Isle, is now in development by Thunderstone Pictures, co-produced by Circle Blue Films and supported by Telefilm Canada. A press release dated February 24th (retrieved from Lake Superior Art Gallery’s site) shows that the crew of Angelique’s Isle filmed winter scenes on the trails in and around Pumphouse Beach and Kevin’s Beach in Terrace Bay from March 1st-3rd. According to an article done by Christensen for The Walleye Magazine, filming will resume in Terrace Bay and at Fort William Historical Park this month.

As an Indigenous woman from Migisi Sahgaigan (Eagle Lake) First Nation, Desrosier felt particularly drawn to Angelique’s story and its parallels to issues Indigenous women face today. Desrosier tells Christensen that “There was something happening for me at the same time as listening, hearing and engaging in this process of murdered and missing Indigenous women.  I also had this story of Angelique, and something was so compelling and it was holding on to me so strongly because I think she’s a reminder.  She’s a reminder for me of how incredibly strong we are as women.”

The film is slated for a 2018 release date.

To find out more about Angelique’s Isle, visit  Thunderstone Pictures.

To read more of Emma Christensen’s reporting on Angelique’s Isle and Angelique Abandoned, visit her online articles at Lake Superior, and The Walleye Magazine.

To purchase a copy of Angelique Abandoned, to view the February 24th, 2017 Angelique’s Isle press release, and to access a copy of CBC’s article on Breaking Barriers Film Fund, visit Lake Superior Art



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Mapping Environmental Stessors on the Great Lakes

Environmental stress mapped across the surface of the Great Lakes. This map is a closer look at the cumulative influence of 34 different environmental threats on Western Lake Superior. The colours represent stress levels compared to other parts of the five lakes. (Image: University of Michigan)

It should be no surprise that the Great Lakes face immense environmental pressures. During the 1960s, Lake Erie was pronounced “dead” due to overloading of phosphorous from municipal waste.

The Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping Project — a group of about 20 American and Canadian researchers and environmentalists — produced the data for this map, which illustrates the cumulative impacts of human activity across the Great Lakes. It speaks volumes at a glance. David Allan, team lead for GLEAM’s project and a professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, hopes the map will help improve how we manage the Great Lakes.

For three years, GLEAM’s scientists analyzed, weighted, plotted and merged 34 environmental stressors, including various effects of residential, commercial and industrial development, crisscrossing shipping lanes, thriving invasive species (in many areas, zebra and quagga mussels are a more serious problem than pollution) and climate change.

“The red spots on this map are not all red for the same reasons,” says Allan. “Our goal is to help people understand that there are many complex combinations of stressors at play here and that they have a spatial pattern. We have to resist the temptation to say, ‘What’s the most important thing? Let’s fix that.’ ”

The list of 34 individual stressors on the Great Lakes were divided into seven categories with specific maps available for each stressor.


  • Aquatic habitat alterations: Changes to aquatic habitat from diverse causes, such as shoreline hardening and erosion control structures, port and marina development, and tributary dams
  • Climate change: Changes to seasonal, average, and extreme temperature, precipitation, and ice cover
  • Coastal development: Land-based human development near lake margins, such as residential and commercial development and industrial activities
  • Fisheries management: Changes to Great Lakes ecosystems resulting from fishing pressure, stocking activities, and aquaculture
  • Invasive species: Changes to Great Lakes ecosystems from invasive and nuisance species in abundances not previously seen
  • Nonpoint source pollution: Nutrients, sediments, and waterborne contaminants transported from watersheds to the Great Lakes by streams and rivers and atmospheric deposition
  • Toxic chemical pollution: Chemical pollutants from industrial and agricultural sources.



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Lake Ontario Water Levels: Mixing Science with Politics

After the floods: May 2, 2017 photo of Lake Ontario shoreline taken by Gov. Cuomo’s office, Rochester, NY.

For meteorologists, high-water levels and flooding on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River have a simple explanation. Rain, and plenty of it, which has drenched the region for weeks, as well as the water from melting snow all throughout the vast Ottawa River watershed.

However, U.S. congressmen Chris Collins (R-New York) and John Katko (R-New York), whose districts border Lake Ontario’s southern shore, blame a different culprit – a recently implemented Canada-US protocol regulating the levels of Lake Ontario’s water.

The representatives, both Republican, have asked President Trump to withdraw from the bilateral agreement, known as Plan 2014. Plan 2014 came into effect in January under the International Joint Commission, the body that oversees transboundary waters and the Areas of Concern. Among other goals, Plan 2014 seeks to improve wetlands by allowing for more variability in water levels – a point that the congressmen portrayed as a questionable benefit linked to former President Obama.

“This controversial and ill-conceived plan was passed at the end of the previous administration and is already wreaking havoc on communities in Central and Western New York,” they wrote in an open letter to Mr. Trump.

“The reality is that this situation has absolutely nothing to do with Plan 2014,” says Robert Campany, a U.S. member of the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board based in Clayton, N.Y. The board, which operates under the auspices of the Joint Commission, can adjust water levels by changing the outflow from the Moses-Saunders hydroelectric dam near Cornwall, Ont.

While Plan 2014 will increase variability in lake level over the long term, he said, the way it is being applied this spring is identical to what would have occurred a year ago when the former plan was still in effect. The reason is that Lake St.-Louis, where the Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers meet near Montreal, is already swollen with rainwater and spring runoff. Lowering Lake Ontario, with its large surface area, by just one centimetre would translate into a 10-centimetre rise in Lake St.-Louis.

“It’s a balancing act,” Mr. Campany said. “Unfortunately there’s no easy answer to make everyone happy.”

That logic did not stop New York’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, from appealing to the Joint Commission last week to release additional water through the dam (he made no mention of the potential downstream effects on Montreal).

Whatever happens to Plan 2014, a key question is what to expect as climate change increasingly affects the various factors that influence lake levels.

Plan 2014 – Water levels on Lake Ontario and St Lawrence River (Text)

Read more here (The Globe and Mail) or here (National Post) …


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City of Waukesha Statement re Great Lakes Water Withdrawal

City Response to Eight Great Lakes Governors’ Ruling on Cities Initiative Appeal

Shawn N. Reilly, Mayor of the City of Waukesha, issued the following statement in April, 2017 regarding the Great Lakes Compact Council’s decision to reaffirm its approval for Waukesha to access Lake Michigan as its future drinking water source.

“Today was a tremendous day for the citizens of Waukesha and the future of our city,” Mayor Reilly announced.

“The decision by the Governors of all eight Great Lakes states as members of the Great Lakes Compact Council, unanimously decided to allow Lake Michigan water to be loaned to the city of Waukesha. The decision includes the provision that Waukesha will return 100 percent of the borrowed water to Lake Michigan via the Root River. The decision was based on facts, science and the Great Lakes Compact Council’s exacting standards for borrowing and returning Great Lakes water. The Compact Council made the right call last year, and unanimously affirmed that today. We appreciate their dedication in examining the facts of our application and how our circumstances are unique.

“This has been a team effort, and we wouldn’t have gotten this far without the diligence and support of the Waukesha Common Council, the Waukesha Water Utility Commission and utility staff, as well as the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Their hard work resulted in the 3,000-page application that proved our case to the other states and provinces that Lake Michigan water is our only reasonable alternative.

“Today’s decision is another step toward providing the 71,000 residents of Waukesha with a clean, reliable and sustainable drinking water source.

“We hope those who filed this appeal will end their opposition and join us in creating a world-class water program that will not only serve our community well into the next century but also be the standard for sustainability and protecting our Great Lakes while improving the quality of the Root River.”
# # #

Media Contact:
Dan Duchniak, P.E.
Waukesha Water Utility

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May 5th Lighthouse Dinner Supports Superior’s Heritage

Porphry Island Harbour
The harbour at Porphry Island. (Photo: J. Bailey/
The charitable, non-profit organization Canadian Lighthouses of Lake Superior is working to restore, preserve and maintain three of the many lighthouses on Lake Superior. These include Porprhy Island Light,  Shaganash Island Light (Number 10) and Trowbridge Island Light.


This year, once again, the group will be hosting an annual fundraising dinner with the theme, “What’s Happening at the Lighthouse?” The event runs May 5th from 6 to 11 p.m at the Prince Arthur Hotel in Thunder Bay. The evening features a buffet dinner,  informative talks, short films, auction items and door prizes. Tickets are $50 dollars per person and are available at the Prince Arthur Hotel front desk or from one of the organization’s directors.


Porphry Island Lighthouse is a magical destination – by any standard. When the wind is blowing and you walk out to the helicopter pad at the southwest tip of the island you can feel this magic. The view is stunning and a vast expanse of Lake Superior stretches south to Passage Island and Isle Royale in Michigan and west to Thunder Cape and Pie Island in Ontario. In a southwest breeze  waves roll over 300 km./186 mi. due southwest from Duluth, with no obstruction.


Trowbridge Island Lighthouse is located approximately 45 km./27 mi. east of the City of Thunder Bay near the tip of the Black Bay Peninsula.
Lighthouse Map
Lighthouse Map
Last season, funds raised helped to provide better docking at Porphyry Island Lighthouse. The harbour at Porphry Island now has excellent, well maintained docks, though limited in size. The Thunder Bay Yacht Club has contributed finances and manpower to upgrade these docks. Visual navigation aids assist sail and power boats proceeding to the docks. Porphry harbour is also an excellent, sheltered retreat for kayakers.
Porphry Island Lighthouse
Porphry Island Lighthouse. (Photo: J. Bailey/
Canadian Lighthouses of Lake Superior Inc. continues to make changes to amenities to provide destinations to people travelling Lake Superior. For people wanting to hear more good news, there will be an announcement at the dinner by Parks Canada on several upgrades to area lighthouse destinations. Last year, with the help of the Thunder Bay Yacht Club and Ontario’s Great Lakes Guardian Community Fund, conservation work and facility upgrades were completed. This year, a day dock will be constructed for Trowbridge Island. Trowbridge has no harbour and is more difficult to access.
Cars on Porphry Island.
Cars on Porphry Island. These vehicles were once used by lighthouse keepers to travel between Porphry’s harbour and the light, a distance of 1.3 km. or just under 1 mi. (Photo: J. Bailey/
If you don’t have a boat, Canadian Lighthouses of Lake Superior offers transportation to Porphry Island as well as accommodation on the island. Find out more here.




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What Did The Great Lakes Look Like Before Environmental Regulations?

Port of Cleveland, 1968
Junk is used to build a breakwall in Cleveland, Ohio on Lake Erie, 1968 (Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt)

Recent media articles have focused on news about potential reductions to Great Lakes environmental restoration and protection programs. In light of such news, it is interesting to look back to a time of reduced or non-existent environmental regulations. A photo essay in Time magazine shows us just what it was like.

The Time Magazine article profiles disturbing photos taken by photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt showing the Great Lakes in 1968. When the photos were taken, environmental laws did exist, but their was no special legislation respecting the Great Lakes. View all of the photos here…

Environmental legislation for Great Lakes restoration and protection evolved over a substantial period of time and is still evolving.  The Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 was the first U.S. major law in place to address water pollution. In 1972 this legislation was amended and became the Clean Water Act.

President Richard Nixon and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau
President Richard Nixon and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau complete signing of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, 1972.

On the Great Lakes, a separate piece of legislation was implemented, namely the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1972, aimed at coordinating actions of Canada and the United States, “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Waters of the Great Lakes.” The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was most recently amended in 2012 to better address the current situation on the Great Lakes. Objectives fall into ten distinct categories or “annexes.”

  1. Areas of Concern
  2. Lakewide Management
  3. Chemicals of Mutual Concern
  4. Nutrients
  5. Discharges from Vessels
  6. Aquatic Invasive Species
  7. Habitats and Species
  8. Groundwater
  9. Climate Change Impacts
  10. Science

On the Canadian side, Water Quality Agreement objectives are addressed through the Canada – Ontario Agreement on Great Lakes Water Quality and Ecosystem Health which dates from 1994.  The Agreement outlines how the governments of Canada and Ontario will cooperate to restore, protect and conserve the Great Lakes basin ecosystem. Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry all cooperate to implement Canada – Ontario Agreement goals.

On the U.S. side, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative was launched in 2010 to address issues in Great Lakes Areas of Concern, prevent invasive species, reduce nutrient runoff resulting in harmful algal blooms and restore habitat to protect native species. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency works in cooperation with state level environmental agency counterparts in every state bordering the Great Lakes to achieve Great Lakes Restoration Initiative goals. View Great Lakes Restoration Initiative projects on a map here.

On Lake Superior, cooperative work or partnership aimed at Lake Superior restoration and protection is carried out through the U.S. EPA, Environment and Climate Change Canada and their state and provincial counterparts. Goals are laid out in the the Lake Superior Lakewide Action and Management Plan 2015-2019. Current goals include:

  1. Maintain deepwater and offshore waters in good ecological condition.
  2. Maintain nearshore zone and reefs in good ecological condition.
  3. Maintain embayments and inshore areas in good ecological condition.
  4. Maintain coastal wetlands in good ecological condition.
  5. Maintain islands in good ecological condition.
  6. Maintain coastal terrestrial habitats in good ecological condition.
  7. Maintain tributaries and watersheds in good ecological condition.
  8. Achieve zero release (from within the Lake Superior basin) of nine persistent bioaccumulative toxic substances.
  9. Protect the Lake Superior basin from contamination resulting from additional substances of concern.

As laid out in the 2016 Progress Report of the Parties, Great Lakes restoration efforts to date show substantial progress, including:

  • Moving forward with the “Randle Reef” project to cleanup contaminated sediment in Hamilton Harbour
  • Completion of a sediment remediation project for mercury contaminated sediment in Peninsula Harbour at Marathon, Ontario
  • Addressing all environmental impairments listed in the Remedial Action Plan for Nipigon Bay
  • Developing a Lakewide Action and Management Plan for Lake Superior
  • Implementing several Great Lakes invasive species prevention and control measures
  • Addressing environmental impairments such that several locations have been removed from the list of  Great Lakes Areas of Concern (recent examples include: Presque Isle, Pensylvania; Deer Lake, Michigan;White Lake Michigan)

Many Great Lakes environmental challenges remain, including the problem of nutrient runoff and harmful algae blooms in Lake Erie. Public support will likely be a vital component for progress in resolving complex Great Lakes environmental challenges, well into the future.





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Statistics Show Spike in Lake Superior Drownings

Remote Controlled Life-saving Device
Launching a remote controlled life-saving device.

During the summer of 2016, anyone frequenting the waters of Lake Superior, especially swimmers, noticed the warm water temperatures. If the lack of ice on Superior has anything to do with upcoming summer water temperatures, 2017 could also see warm water.

In 2016, there were stretches of warm weather and water when sailors, fisher people, paddlers and motorboaters, who might normally be reluctant to enter the lake, all took a dip. That included swimiming at urban beaches but also in remote locations out on the open lake, whether an island, a provincial, state or national park, or some of the beautiful sandspits at river and stream mouths which dot remote locations on Superior. Water levels are also up across the entire Great Lakes, bringing wave energy closer to shore and unsuspecting waders or swimmers.

Related September, 2016 Infosuperior article: Great Swimming Small Part of Larger Temperature Trend

Accordingly, drownings on Lake Superior saw a 350% increase from 2015 to 2016, going from 2 in 2015 to 9 in 2016. Across the entire Great Lakes there was a 78% spike.

Drowning awareness needs to become part of Great Lakes culture; this according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue ProjectStatistics from the organization show there were 99 Great Lakes drownings in 2016. The deadly count runs as follows:

  • Lake Michigan – 46, (plus 6 listed in critical condition)
  • Lake Erie – 19
  • Lake Ontario – 13
  • Lake Huron – 12
  • Lake Superior – 9
  • Total – 99

There have been approximately 551 Great Lakes drownings since 2010.

Life saving statistics show that rip currents are a common denominator in over half of all Great Lakes drownings.  The course of events starts with a swimmer becoming caught in a rip current. Rescuers from shore cannot see the current, and unless they are wearing life jackets, can become victims themselves. As a victim gets carried further and further from shore, risk for rescuers and victims alike is increased, inch by inch, foot by foot, meter by meter. Especially  in the cold waters of Superior.

Furthermore, rip currents often occur (counter intuitively) when large waves are pounding up on a beach. It is dangerous to enter the water in such conditions, let alone carry out a rescue. Throwing something like a life ring, upwind and against the waves, in such conditions, is almost a waste of time. Entering the water for a rescue may become a compounding factor in a deadly, downward spiral. The situation can become extremely disturbing if no additional help is available and the only alternative is to stay on shore and watch as someone drowns.

What if rescuers didn’t have to enter the water?

There is hope. Michigan Technological University (MTU) students (Houghton, Michigan) are working on a cheap and affordable method whereby rescuers may not have to enter the water. What they are developing is basically a remote controlled life ring, or drone,  that could be kept at swimming beaches, on board vessels for man overboard situations or in emergancy response vehicles for cases involving potential drownings.

MTU students call the device a Nautical Emergency Rescue Drone, or NERD. After two 2016 drownings off Little Presque Isle in Lake Superior last summer, the Keewenaw Bay Indian Community purchased two of the units. At this point, they may be the only such devices on the Great Lakes.

Use of the remote controlled life saving device was demonstrated at the April 21st and 22nd, Sheboygan, Wisconsin water safety conference of the Great Lakes Water Safety Consortium. The Consortium is an umbrella group for water safety on the U.S. side. The organization brings together first responders, meteoroligists, research scientists, park rangers and lifeguards, among others. A key objective is to connect people interested in water safety and to endevour to maximize collective knowledge.  Members of the organization include NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Minnesota Sea Grant and every other state Sea Grant organization around the Great Lakes, the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, several universities, the Michigan Lighthouse Conservancy, the National Lifeguard and Lifesaving Society and many other groups.

Life saving drones are not likely to solve the issue of drownings on the Great Lakes, although they may help. Prevention and education are by far the most important aspects of work to eliminate drownings.

Top tips from the Sheboygan conference follow:

  • Water safety is not common sense. It must be learned.
  • Drowning is a neglected public health epidemic. Globally, 40 persons drown per hour on average. In the United States 10 persons drown per day.
  • Great Lakes drownings were up 78% last year.
  • The Great Lakes are a fantastic asset to residents and visitors. We don’t mean to scare people away but we want them to be aware.
  • It’s not just about the numbers. It’s about people’s lives.
  • Megan Dodson at the National Weather Service maintains a database of Great Lakes drowning fatalities and rescues. [The preceeding link is an extremely informative set of information about Lake Superior drownings, rip currents and their formation, associated weather, etc.]
  • Rip currents are an especially dangerous occurrence on the Great Lakes. They are difficult to see and are usually 50 to 100 feet wide. Rip current speeds are generally 1 mph/1.6 km/hr to 5 mph/8.02 km./hr.
  • The Great Lakes sometimes experience seiches, also known as a meteosunami. These are caused by air pressure disturbances often associated with fast-moving weather systems such as squall lines. Seiches can intensify and complicate rip currents, making them even more unpredictable and dangerous.
Swimming at Neys
Swimming at Neys Provincial Park, Lake Superior. (Photo: J. Bailey/

The prevalence of rip currents is well documented on Superior. At the vast Neys Provincial Park beach on the Canadian side, large waves  pounding the beach also prevent return of this huge volume of water back to the open lake. Instead, a fast-paced current often runs parallel to the shore towards the Little Pic River, seeking release by way of the river current punching out into the lake. A few steps out from the beach is a deeper section of water, perhaps 50 ft/15 m. wide, in effect a trough scoured by the current and running parallel to the shore.  Waders and swimmers can feel the current running past them as they cross the trough, after which the water becomes shallower again. Drownings have ocurred here, especially near the river mouth where rip current and river current combine. Add in fluke conditions, like a heavy rain storm with high river flow, large waves coming ashore and perhaps a seiche associated with an intense low pressure system and a very unpredictable, dangerous situation can develop. Neys is a beautiful beach, totally open to the south and southwest, sometimes with huge waves. The fetch to the south is some 250 km./155 mi. Swimmers love it but people have died there.

A similar situation prevails at Park Point on the U.S. side at Duluth. This is the huge sand spit peninsula which forms the border between the open lake and Duluth’s inner harbour, the St. Louis River estuary. The beach on the outer side of the spit is comprised of beautiful sand and has massive  “fetch” for waves rolling across Superior (the first obstruction is Isle Royale 250 km./155 mi. to the northeast).  Swimmers love it. The site has great potential for rip currents and in fact Minnesota Sea Grant calls it one of the most likely places on Superior for rip currents to happen, noting the same scouring of the sand along the shore by currents as at Neys.

Minnesota Sea Grant’s site explaining rip currents and providing information specific to Park Point is accessible here.

A warning system from the Duluth National Weather Service is in place at Park Point and is calculated through wind speed, wave height and direction. Flags at four locations indicate rip current risk with green indicating low risk, yellow for moderate risk and red for high risk.

An overview of news stories and incidents at Park Point is provided here.

It’s a while yet before summer but many will be putting boats in the water over the next few weeks. We may not be able to see the seiche, or the rip currents, but the lake is often moving. To everyone around Superior – stay aware and stay safe.



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