Not just the waves: the dangerous cold of Lake Superior

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Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project (GLSRP) has been tracking the drownings on the Great Lakes since 2010. The nonprofit has tracked at least 1170 fatal drownings, with 2020-2022 having over one hundred per year. So far this year, there have been 15 drownings on the Great Lakes, including two on Lake Superior. 

Unlike what is shown on TV shows, GLSRP Co-Founder Bob Pratt says drowning often happens quickly and quietly. 

“I’m going to be pawing at the water, pushing down underwater, attempting to keep my head above the surface. My hands are going to be back because I can gain a couple of inches of breathing space by tipping my head back again,” Pratt explained. “Typically no yelling and no waving, and I’ll be in that position for typically 45 seconds to a minute and then I’ll go underwater.”

If you see someone drowning, the best thing you can do is call 9-1-1 and give them a floatation device.

“A lot of times every year we have fatal drownings of would-be rescuers. This is extra sad because in most cases, there’s something that floats that a rescuer could take with them,” said Pratt. “Floatation really is the key. If you find yourself struggling in the water, try to relax. We teach ‘flip, float, follow’. Flip over on your back, that allows you to breathe whenever you want to float, to calm yourself down, float to conserve your energy and float to notice that I’m being pulled one way or another by the current and then follow a path back to safety where we’re not fighting against the current.”

On lake superior, it’s not just the waves that can be life-threatening.

“We’ll have people who have to jump off of boats, to jump off of peers wanting to cool off in the 75, 80 degree air temperatures and not realizing that 45 to 50 degree water will incapacitate someone almost immediately,” said Pratt.

Falling into very cold water can result in what researchers call the Cold Shock Response.

“The first thing that happens is an involuntary gasp. If the person’s face happens to be in the water, when they take that involuntary gasp, then it can be life threatening right off the get-go,” Pratt explained. “If they’re able to survive that and come to the surface, falling into very cold water will cause a dramatic increase in the heart rate. We’ll go from a normal heart rate of, say, 80 to 100 to almost twice that to a very, very high heart rate. Like someone is exercising ferociously and you can easily have a heart rate run up in the 100 and 5080, even 200 range.”

The increased heart rate will then cause many to hyperventilate. 

“This does a couple of things. One is that it changes in the body and it causes panic to be much more likely. And the other thing that it does is people tend to, when they’re hyperventilating, exhale more air than they’re inhaling, and the air in your lungs is one of the things that keeps you buoyant and keeps you at the surface of the water,” said Pratt. “So if you’re exhaling more air than your inhaling, you’re actually making yourself less buoyant, which is going to increase the chances of drowning. It’s going to increase the panic, which is going to increase your breathing. And so you have this downward spiral that can easily become fatal.”

In this scenario, Pratt estimates you have about a minute to get control over your breathing and then ten minutes to try to get onto a boat or floatation device.

“After about 10 minutes, we start to see major constriction of the arms and legs, for example, and inability to do fine motor control,” said Pratt.

Life jackets have been proven to reduce the risk of drowning significantly.

“If we could get all the kayakers and all the stand up paddle boarders and all the people fishing and boating to wear their life jackets, that would be a huge step,” emphasized Pratt. “Of the 1170 drownings that we’ve had, only 16 were wearing life jackets. All sixteen of those were in very cold water for a very long period of time.”

Even with a life jacket, the cold waters of Lake Superior can still be deadly. After around an hour of floating with a life jacket or other floatation device, hypothermia can become life-threatening.