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A member of the Duluth Fire Department rushes a boy wrapped in a blanket to an ambulance after he was rescued by bystanders after getting swept away by a rip current at the 12th Street Beach on Park Point in Duluth in July 2011. The boy was exhausted and could not stand on his own after fighting the rip current. (2011 file / News Tribune)

Beach forecasts, alerts for rip currents back for summer in Duluth

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Two Harbors Minnesota 109 Waterfront Dr. 55616

The Twin Ports saw its first rip-current warning Saturday -- a reminder that with summer weather finally here, beachgoers on Lake Superior need to be mindful of the potential of dangerous underwater currents.

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Duluth will continue its system of warning flags at three major parking areas along Park Point where people are most likely to access the beach.

Now through Oct. 15 the Duluth Fire Department, based on a forecast from the Duluth office of the National Weather Service, will post a flag by 10 a.m. each day at three locations along Park Point. Red flags mean stay out of the water. Yellow means rip currents might develop. Green means safe to swim, but be careful.

Duluth's flag-warning system started in 2010. The same system is used at oceanfront beaches and was developed locally by a coalition that included the Duluth Parks and Recreation Department, American Red Cross, Sea Grant, the Fire Department and Weather Service.

Along the sand beaches of Duluth's Minnesota Point and Superior's Wisconsin Point, the problem usually is caused when easterly winds blow strong into shore, National Weather Service experts note. If easterly or northeasterly winds are forecast near 17 mph or higher, the rip current potential is raised to high, and the red flag goes up.

Jerry Keppers, assistant Duluth fire chief who heads the department's rip current warning flag program, said Saturday's first red flag of the season probably wasn't noticed by many people. This year's slow spring has made the beach less popular than usual.

"There was only one car in any of the lots, and I don't think they were in the water," Keppers said, noting that it was foggy, cold and rainy at the time.

But as air and water temperatures rise, more people will head to the beach to cool off. Ironically, Lake Superior is warmest along Park Point when strong easterly winds blow the sun-warmed surface water into the Duluth beach.

"When the water is the warmest, it's also the most dangerous," Keppers said.

The Weather Service has beach spotters report actual conditions so officials aren't just using a formula.

"They are our eyes on the water," said Carol Christenson, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Duluth.

Rip currents occur when waves push water hard up onto the beach and the water pours back out toward the lake. In most places, the backsplash is harmless. But in some places where channels or rips are located in the sand just under the water, the return of water back out to the lake can have a powerful pulling effect, often overcoming even strong swimmers' and waders' ability to move back to shore.

The solution is simple, but many people caught in a rip apparently don't know it, or panic and forget: Don't try to fight the rip by heading directly back to shore. Instead, turn sideways to the beach and swim along the beach until you swim out of the rip, then head back to shore. Rips are usually 30 yards wide or less.

There are incidents nearly every year in Duluth when rip currents are blamed for near-drownings, including last summer, Keppers noted. In 2003, 21-year-old Matthew Rheaume drowned, apparently after a rip current formed off the 12th Street beach on Park Point. That same August day, with a strong easterly wind, several others needed rescuing from rip currents, including then-University of Minnesota Duluth hockey player Junior Lessard.

Lake Superior has fewer rip current issues than other Great Lakes because it has much less sand and more rocky shore where rip currents are much less likely to develop. Lake Superior also is colder than the other big lakes, with fewer people venturing into the water.

Lake Michigan, with sand along much of its shoreline, has many more rip current issues. According to the Associated Press, Michigan Technological University researchers are using a special radar developed at the university's research institute in Ann Arbor, Mich., to track how waves move toward a beach. They also are using satellite technology to map the bottom of Lake Michigan near shore in certain areas to provide a baseline of information ahead of trouble events.

So far, researchers have found that Lake Michigan by far has the largest number of drownings and current-related incidents. Human-made structures such as piers and break-walls generate the currents that cause the most incidents, and 72 percent of incidents occur when winds are blowing toward shore.

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