Turning the tide

By on September 22, 2011
picnic rocks beach

After another drowning at a beach notorious for its dangerous currents, a city came together to improve beach safety

In early October 2005, a crowd of beach-goers at Picnic Rocks Beach in Marquette, Michigan, became the audience to a tragedy. News reports recounted how dozens of people watched as two swimmers were overcome by the current while trying to swim back to shore. Onlookers called for help and a kayaker tried to reach them, all to no avail. The two teenagers, Toni Copeland and Cassiano Huckabee, both drowned.

The waters off Picnic Rocks Beach in Lake Superior have caused more than a dozen deaths in the last 30 years, according to Assistant City Manager Karl Zueger. Swimming is discouraged, and the beach is not patrolled by lifeguards, but the water is deceiving, especially in nice weather.

The current at Picnic Rocks Beach is called a long shore current, a unique subset of rip currents that run parallel to shore rather than perpendicular. Rip currents, also known as rip tides, occur as a result of the interaction between several factors, including: wave height, direction, other waves, currents and changes in water levels. These factors create an uneven distribution and buildup of water along the coastline, which propels the water back out to sea at high velocities. Water speed is considered moderate around one mph; rip tides generate currents of two to five mph. At these speeds, a rip current can pull even the strongest swimmers away from shore or into a hazardous area.

In light of these dangers, the town has been working to increase the alertness and preparedness of beach visitors, but it was in the wake of the deaths of Copeland and Huckabee that a plan began to take shape.

Friends of Copeland, Craig Wiseman and Scott McLain, engineering students at Northern Michigan University, created a proposal for a water velocity monitoring system at Picnic Rocks Beach. Using the report as their senior project, the two students outlined a detailed strategy for monitoring the water and making the data available to beach goers, emergency response personnel and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, among others.

Drownings from rip currents are not unique to Picnic Rocks Beach. During the summer of 2010 alone, 30 people died in the Great Lakes and more than 30 were rescued from dangerous swimming conditions caused by these currents. Nationally, rip currents are estimated to kill over 100 people each year and account for 80% of beach rescues.

After seeking out partners to provide the desired monitoring technology and locating grant funding from the Great Lakes Observing System (GLOS) to support their project, the team chose to monitor water safety at Picnic Rocks Beach using a Doppler current meter and a cellular telemetry system. Measurements from the current meter are stored in the data logger and then transmitted by cellular telemetry to a host computer. Software processes and posts the data to the WQData website where it can be viewed from any web browser. Zueger commented that the equipment helped improve the city’s understanding of the currents, and built a strong foundation for what has grown into a city-wide project. Citizens of Marquette can now look online at the beach safety forecasts before they visit the shoreline.

The project developed by the team is a novel step for rip current safety in the Great Lakes, Zueger said.

“This type of research and deploying this type of equipment on a Great Lake like we have is a pilot study – it hasn’t occurred in other coastal communities.” He noted that people are now paying attention to beach safety when they may not have in the past.

The culture of the Marquette community has been the key factor behind these changes, Zeuger said. In light of these developments, Marquette has been honored with the Michigan Municipal League’s (MML) Region 7 Community Excellence Award (CEA), and will have an opportunity to win the highest CEA honor for the state at the MML convention this October.

The city, schools, and supporting groups in Marquette have played important roles as the project has progressed. A new ordinance allows the city to close the beaches during times of bad weather and a flag system has been put in place to alert the public of the beach’s status. A website streaming real-time data is frequented by beach goers and local hotels even place a safety card on the pillows of patrons to educate them of the importance of beach safety.

“We’ve found that although [the beach is] pristine, there are dangerous aspects of it,” Zeuger said. “It’s our responsibility to get a better understanding of that and share it with the public.”

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