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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