Deadly currents — why they hit the Great Lakes

SciencePowerful currents on the Great Lakes have caused more than 150 drownings since 2002, according to researchers. Those currents can appear suddenly, says Mark Breederland, an educator with Michigan Sea Grant.

“The wind is key. It can start up pretty calm. Pretty soon it picks up – you’re out there, just enjoying the beach and you’re not really thinking about it,” Breederland says. Michigan Sea Grant is a university program focused on preserving Great Lakes resources through education and research. “All of the sudden, the waves have come way up from what they were when you first started.”

When a drowning occurs, people often attribute it to an undertow. Scientists say it’s much more complicated than that. Continue reading

One of the most extensive fishery surveys in the Great Lakes region is currently underway

10e2078f0f45da21f10ead596d5ca441Three vessels are sailing Lake Michigan using sonar technology to survey prey fish.

The objective of the survey is threefold; to forecast whether fish numbers are growing or shrinking, to understand how predator fish numbers may be effected, and to prepare fishing markets for potential changes in fish populations. Continue reading

Great Lakes drownings hit small Michigan county

BerrienDangerous currents and drownings go hand-in hand across the Great Lakes. But many are concentrated in Southwest Michigan’s Berrien Co.

The county has 50 miles of shoreline and its crown jewel is Silver Beach County Park. It’s straight out of a postcard: sandy beaches, a playground, and a big concession stand selling snow cones and hot dogs.

The area is a popular spot for Midwesterners who don’t want to make the long trip to the ocean, says Brian Bailey, who manages the park.

“We’re at the lower portion of Lake Michigan. We’re near major population, urban areas of Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis,” he says. “We’re a very attractive summer playground for many people.”

In addition to the large number of visitors, a couple of other factors come into play in Berrien.

“We get the combination of inexperienced swimmers, storms that can come up at any time, and wave heights,” Bailey says. “Those can be dangerous conditions.”

Since 2002, powerful currents have led to at least 21 deaths and 29 rescues at parks in the county, according to adatabase maintained by researchers. The wind also plays a role, says the National Weather Service’s Megan Dodson.

“When you have really strong winds blowing from the west, or the northwest, or the southwest, that causes the water to pile up near the beaches on western Michigan,” Dodson says. “You get the water piling up, you have a better chance for currents to develop.”

Haley Smoot, head lifeguard at Silver Beach, adds, “We have a lot of out of town people that don’t understand the lake and how it works. They come and they expect it to be like a swimming pool and it’s not.”

At Silver Beach on days when winds are high, lifeguards walk up and down the shore, keeping people out of the water and educating them about currents. But lifeguards are not responsible for the two piers in the county.

Several drownings have been attributed to people jumping off the piers. They were built in the 1800s and are operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Christopher Shropp, chief of construction and survey at the Army Corps’ office in Grand Haven, Mich., says the piers are still used for their initial purpose: to lead the way for ships.

“The purpose of the pier structure is for federal navigation, shipping within the federal navigation channels,” he says. “The piers allow ships to enter the harbor safely carrying whatever product they have – aggregate, coal, iron ore.”

These days, the piers are also used recreationally – anyone can fish or just walk on them. Shropp says that while it’s unfortunate that jumping accidents happen, making the piers unavailable to the public is not an option.

“We certainly don’t want to close the structures, because there’s a lot of visitors who enjoy them,” he says. “I don’t know that that would go over very well and people find their way around it anyways.”

The county Sheriff’s Department can’t ticket or fine anyone jumping off the pier, but Sgt. Kristen Robbins is hoping for such a solution.

“I hope that it can only go that direction to where pier jumping would be illegal,” she says.

Officials have taken steps to prevent drownings. For example, the piers have warning signs and throw rings in case of emergency. Silver Beach has emergency phones stationed around the property.

There’s one thing Silver Beach has that many other beaches around Berrien County don’t – lifeguards. That includes Warren Dunes State Park and all of Michigan’s state parks.

Ron Olson, chief of parks for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, says there are a couple of reasons why. “It costs a lot of money to equip lifeguards. Further, you need to have experienced people.”

Warren Dunes got rid of lifeguards more than 30 years ago. Since 2002, five people have drowned there because of dangerous currents, according to the currents database. On days when there are dangerous currents, Warren Dunes flies a red flag. The image on the flag depicts a swimmer with a line through it: no swimming due to currents.

Olson says the state is working to make the signs more accessible, too: braille for the blind, words or an image for the colorblind, and signs in other languages. Warren Dunes also has a boat available for emergencies.

Olson says the state is not responsible if an accident occurs, and that having lifeguards wouldn’t make a difference.

New product could help fight invasive mussels

DSC_0697Zebra and Quagga mussels have wreaked havoc on the Great Lakes ecosystem by almost completely removing the tiniest plants and animals that are essential to the food chain.

Now researchers will test a new product that could hold the key to taking the ecosystem back.

Continue reading

Grants awarded to help prepare children for school

e8475de0344e92d68bc6745bc5ea0d46 (1)The grants are called home visitation grants. They were awarded to 15 intermediate school districts.

Bill DiSessa is the spokesperson for the Michigan department of Education.

He said the grants will help young children get extra attention to prepare them for school.

“ We’re talking about young children before they get into the K-12 system. To get them an early head start if you will on learning. And with research showing the positive result that can come at that- at such an early start. “

DiSessa said grants have been awarded in districts including Saginaw and Ingham county.

The funding is expected to help 600 families prepare kids for school.

Ohio mother mourns son taken by Lake Erie current

Mothers StoryIn her family’s backyard overlooking Lake Erie, Melissa Zirkle watched as her son Jermaine joined some friends in the water. On that July day in 2013, she was building steps in the backyard.

“I kept looking and checking on him, and he was standing in the water and he was laughing, having fun with the other kids,” Zirkle says, recalling the scene along Ohio’s shoreline. “Then about two minutes later, I heard cries for help.” Continue reading

Physician assistant suicide bill introduced by Michigan legislature

file8321273697614A new bill would make physician-assisted suicide legal in Michigan The bill is modeled after Oregon’s law, and requires two doctors to agree that the patient will likely die within six months. The patient would also have to be over 18 years-old, and meet certain criteria before getting medicine from a doctor that will end their life. Continue reading

An estimated 275 deaths in Michigan every year are related to air pollution

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A report released this week found an estimated 275 deaths in Michigan each year are related to air pollution.

This according to a new study conducted for the American Thoracic Society.

The report took data from 2011 to 2013. Continue reading

New DEQ chief says oil industry background won’t effort her job

deschutes RiverThe new director of the state Department of Environmental Quality says her background as an oil industry lobbyist won’t interfere with how she does her job.

Heidi Grether says her top priorities are restoring employee morale and public confidence in the DEQ after the Flint water crisis.

Grether says she’s not surprised by criticism of her appointment because she worked as an oil industry lobbyist. She says that experience gives her some perspective.

“But that doesn’t mean I necessarily think a certain way.”

Her work for BP included helping with the response to the Gulf oil spill.

Grether is still undecided on whether an Enbridge energy pipeline beneath the Straits of Mackinac needs to be shut down. She says her oil industry background won’t bias her on the question.