Swimming weather soon will return to northern Michigan. So will the water-related dangers that each year claim a hundred or more lives in the Great Lakes.

Each of us is responsible for our personal safety and that of our children. But each year, people who live inland vacation on Traverse City area beaches — and some of them fail to give big water the respect it demands.

Potentially life-saving technology soon will be introduced in northwest Lower Michigan. Frankfort’s beach in May will get a pair of SwimSmart Warning System lights, one at the main beach entrance and one on the breakwall. They’ll show a green, yellow or red light, similar in message to the flag system already used by the city and at many public beaches. Green means conditions are generally safe, yellow means some danger exists and swimmers should use caution, red means only strong and experienced swimmers should consider going in the water.

Frankfort’s lights will tap into a cellular network to connect to the company, which in turn gets its information from National Weather Service surf forecasts. Factors including wave predictions and risk advisories will determine which color the lights display. The lights will function as an electronic lifeguard whistle, a warning.

Lifeguards, once a summertime staple, are rare these days, driven from the sand by budget cuts and liability fears. In their absence, automated systems like the one to be installed in Frankfort may help prevent tragedy.

Personal responsibility, of course, rules — at the beach or anywhere else. Everyone should look both ways before they cross a road. Everyone should study the size of the waves before they leap into Lake Michigan. But a lake is more complicated than a road.

The surf zone — that magical borderland between beach and deep water — is a natural playground that delivers delight to all ages. It can also be a danger zone, particularly for folks who aren’t comfortable in the water, can’t swim well or are prone to panic.

Lifeguards whistle when danger appears: when youngsters roughhouse, swimmers go in farther than they should, a speeding boat approaches, or a rip current forms.

Governmental budget cuts and worries about liability gradually washed away lifeguards from all but a handful of the most popular Michigan beaches. Surf zone dangers did not fade away.

Nearly 1,000 people have drowned in the Great Lakes since 2010, including more than 400 in Lake Michigan, according to the {span}Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project{/span}. in 2020 alone, 109 souls drowned in the Great Lakes, 56 of them in Lake Michigan. Those deaths stem from a variety of situations including walkers being swept off piers and swimmers being caught in rip currents.

Rip currents, narrow water streams that flow from shore straight out toward deep water, tend to form along wavy beaches, especially where sandbars and breakwalls are present. National Weather Service figures blame rip currents for 65 of the 100 surf zone deaths it studied nationwide in 2020.

Swimmers caught in such currents tend to swim straight toward shore — but that’s like trying to swim upstream in a fast river. If caught in a rip, experts recommend a swimmer paddle parallel to shore to get out of the current.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Ocean Service is creating a nationwide forecast model along ocean shores, a model it hopes will help predict where and when rips form.

But the lakeshore will lag behind the seacoast in adopting the forecast system, because the Great Lakes are short on lifeguards and water observation technology. The plan aims to bring the model to the Great Lakes within the next few years. Once implemented, it would give forecasters a way to produce an hourly probability of dangerous currents, up to six days in advance.

Such forecasting could be useful in the quest to keep beachgoers safe. Warning lights should help, too — if swimmers pay attention to them.

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

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