As one of the world's biggest freshwater lakes, Lake Michigan is a source of both beauty and natural resources for nearby residents. It may be considered "great," but is it safe to swim in Lake Michigan? It might not present the same hazards as an ocean, but it's not always wise to take a dip in those waters.
Because of its position and shape, Lake Michigan can host some extreme conditions, as those who live near its shores in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan can attest. Beloved for boating and fishing, the lake also boasts a number of beaches, often enticing swimmers despite the water's cold temperatures. When the water is serene, it might seem silly to wonder if Lake Michigan is dangerous. The short answer: not always. As with any body of water, would-be swimmers should be aware of their own abilities and any posted signs before wading in.
Lake Michigan's shape resembles an eggplant with almost completely smooth edges and a north to south orientation. Because of this, dangerous currents can form in its waters. Officials sometimes close beaches and warm swimmers not to enter the water due to hazardous longshore and rip currents. Those come from the high winds that can blow across Lake Michigan's surface, made especially fast since there are no land obstructions jutting into the water to slow them down.
When wind forces a large amount of water towards the shore, the water escapes via a rip current, forming a stream of water rushing the opposite way. Longshore currents are similar, but travel parallel to the shore. When a swimmer enters a rip current, it drags them away from shore; depending on the current's strength, it may be nearly impossible to swim against the current.
Between 2002 and 2017, 243 people needed rescuing and 82 people died after becoming trapped in these currents in Lake Michigan. These statistics are twice as high as those from the other Great Lakes.
Each state bordering Lake Michigan has their own organization responsible for monitoring Escherichia coli (E. coli) around their beaches. The notorious bacteria can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and infection, and though not necessarily deadly, those with compromised immune systems may be in more danger.
While E. coli itself is nasty, officials use its presence as a potential indicator of feces in the water, meaning other dangerous bacteria or pathogens could be present. E. coli comes from fecal matter and can enter the water through overflow or runoff from waste management plants, farms, and even pets on the beach. However, scientists discovered the biggest source of contamination comes from seagulls and other water birds.
Most beaches along Lake Michigan monitor E. coli levels every few days and either post warnings or close beaches according to what they find. Obey the signs, and you'll be fine.
As one of the largest bodies of fresh water in the world, Lake Michigan provides drinking water in addition to a spot for recreation. Unfortunately, pollution from toxic chemicals can impact both uses. Organizations monitor the water along with the Environmental Protection Agency in attempt to ensure the water remains safe, but chemicals reportedly sometimes leak into the water.
US Steel has been cited several times and sued for either leaking or dumping chromium into Lake Michigan. On occasion, US Steel failed to report the accidents and once requested the state's regulators not tell anyone. People near the southern end of Lake Michigan report chemical smells sometimes coming from the water, and have occasionally come from the beach with rashes and mysterious infections.
In addition to dangerous currents, the strong winds around Lake Michigan can create deadly waves, possibly reaching up to 23 feet tall. Since the waves of Lake Michigan rely on wind and air pressure to form, nearby residents and swimmers don't need to worry about 50-foot walls of water. That's not to say Lake Michigan's powerful waves can't cause destruction – in 1954, a 10-foot wave hit Chicago and killed eight people.
Powerful waves cause even stronger rip currents, which can be very dangerous for swimmers. Waves as high as three feet have the ability to knock people down.