GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Three people died in Lake Michigan in separate drownings Wednesday. This makes a total of 26 deaths in Lake Michigan so far this season.
While the lake can be dangerous any day, there are a few key reasons why Wednesday was so deadly.
NORTH WINDS PILE UP WATER
Lake Michigan typically sees the biggest waves when the wind is out of the north, south, or occasionally the west. Conversely, days with an east wind typically flatten out our side of the lake.
A north wind typically creates the worst conditions for West Michigan beaches. Lake Michigan is a long lake with most of its coastline running north to south. The lake is about 300 miles long. Wind coming down from the north will travel for dozens, if not hundreds of miles over the open water before arriving on shore.
As the wind travels over the water from north to south, it pushes the water forward. Water will continue to be pushed forward until it slams into something to stop it. In West Michigan, our piers and breakwaters typically stick out into the lake from east to west.
Water that is pushed into the piers becomes instantly rocky. Typically on a breezy day, the waves on the windward side of a pier will be much higher than those on the downwind side.
Both sides of the pier can still be dangerous due to structural water currents. Two of the drownings on Wednesday happened on the north side of piers in West Michigan. The third was in the Grand Haven channel.
THE WEATHER WAS ‘NICE’
Drownings typically happen in the summer when the weather is quiet. Showers, storms or waves more than four feet typically keep the beaches clear from dawn to dusk.
Days that are sunny and quiet allow visitors to let their guard down. When swimming in Lake Michigan, it is imperative to pay attention to the weather constantly. Weather can change quickly, and wind can arrive without a single cloud in the sky.
Frequently, wind from 100 feet or more above the ground can be mixed down to the surface in the afternoon. This happens due to convective currents from the sunshine helping to create a vertical mixing structure in the low levels of the atmosphere. When this occurs, the wind can often become gusty or even change directions.
Lake Michigan is also large enough to create its own weather. On warm, sunny, quiet days the air temperature above the lake water can be so different from what is occurring on land that it can create a wind current. Often in the summertime, the wind is pushed onshore in the afternoon due to the hot sand and still relatively cool water.