Editorial: Warning lights aim to cut lake tragedies | Editorials

Swimming weather will return to Northern Michigan soon. This also applies to the water-related hazards that claim hundreds or more lives in the Great Lakes every year.

Each of us is responsible for our own personal safety and that of our children. But every year inland vacationers visit Traverse City’s beaches – and some of them don’t give the great water the respect it demands.

Potentially life-saving technology is about to be rolled out in northwest Lower Michigan. Two SwimSmart warning lights will be installed on Frankfurt Beach in May, one at the main entrance to the beach and one on the partition. They show a green, yellow or red light, similar to the flag system already used by the city and on many public beaches. Green means conditions are generally safe, yellow means some danger and swimmers should exercise caution. Red means that only strong and experienced swimmers should consider getting in the water.

Frankfurt’s lights will access a cellular network to connect to the company, which in turn gets its information from the National Weather Service’s surf forecasts. Factors like wave predictions and risk warnings determine what color the lights indicate. The lights act as an electronic lifeguard whistle, a warning.

Lifeguards, once a summer staple, are rare these days and are being driven out of the sand by budget cuts and liability fears. In their absence, automated systems like the one to be installed in Frankfurt can help prevent tragedy.

Of course, personal responsibility reigns supreme – on the beach or elsewhere. Everyone should look both ways before crossing a street. Everyone should research the size of the waves before jumping into Lake Michigan. However, a lake is more complicated than a road.

The surf zone – the magical border area between the beach and deep water – is a natural playground that is fun for all age groups. It can also be a danger zone, especially for people who are uncomfortable in the water, cannot swim well, or are prone to panic.

Lifeguards whistle when danger arises: When teenagers are rough, swimmers go in further than they should, a speedboat approaches, or a current forms.

Budget cuts and liability concerns have gradually washed away lifeguards from all but a handful of Michigan’s most popular beaches. The dangers of the surf zone did not decrease.

According to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project {/ span}, nearly 1,000 people have drowned in the Great Lakes since 2010, including more than 400 in Lake Michigan. In 2020 alone, 109 souls drowned in the Great Lakes, 56 of them in Lake Michigan. These deaths have been attributed to a variety of situations, including hikers being swept by piers and swimmers trapped in currents.

Fissure currents, narrow streams of water flowing straight from the shore towards deep water, tend to form along wavy beaches, especially where there are sandbars and walls. The National Weather Service’s numbers blame the currents for 65 of the 100 surf zone deaths that were investigated nationwide in 2020.

Swimmers caught in such currents tend to swim straight to the bank – but that’s like trying to swim upriver in a fast river. Experts recommend a swimmer’s paddle parallel to the bank to get out of the current.

The National Ocean Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration creates a nationwide forecasting model along the coast of the ocean. This model is designed to help predict where and when cracks will form.

However, the lakeshore will lag behind the lakeshore in adopting the forecasting system due to a lack of lifeguards and water observation technology in the Great Lakes. The plan aims to bring the model to the Great Lakes in the next few years. Once implemented, it would give forecasters a way to generate an hourly probability of dangerous currents up to six days in advance.

Such a prediction could be useful in keeping beachgoers safe. Warning lights should help too – if swimmers watch out for them.

Experienced swimmers also pay attention to the water itself, carefully assessing when it is advisable to stay dry. It is the rest of us who most need the help of warning lights and forecasting models.

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