Is it Really a Beach Day?
On sweltering summer days there's a swarm on Minnesota's Park Point Beach. Northland beachgoers are building sand castles, sunbathing, swimming and occasionally surfing. With bracing waters lapping a graceful seven-mile sandbar, who wouldn't want to be on these shores of Lake Superior? But, as is often true, where there's fun, there's risk. In this case it comes in the form of UV rays, rip currents, beach bacteria…and possibly a lot of fog.
Over the past two years, Minnesota Sea Grant along with the University of Minnesota Duluth's Natural Resource Research Institute and a host of other partners* has created a web tool to alert beachgoers about the day's potential on Minnesota's most popular coastal beach. Now complete, ParkPointBeach.org will continue to compile near real-time weather, water statistics and beach warnings from May to October for years to come.
To spread the word that this handy cyber-tool exists, Minnesota Sea Grant rolled out products and advertisements in July of this year. Frisbees, t-shirts, magnets, coasters and posters could be found at events at Bayfront Park, in Canal Park and along Park Point. A catchy ParkPointBeach.org jingle aired through August. And, in the name of outreach, Jesse Schomberg, coastal communities extension educator at Minnesota Sea Grant and principle investigator on the project, dared to show up on T.V. and on the "Big Screen" wearing a swimsuit.
The ParkPointBeach.org creators emphatically want the public to know that rip currents exist and claim lives in the Great Lakes.
"Many rip current victims have had no idea that they had to think about rip currents or their risks," said Schomberg. "The first step in being prepared is knowing what to do in these situations. A lot of people don't know until it's too late. And even though the beach isn't a horribly dangerous place to be, every once in a while there's a threat that you need to be aware of."
A rip current is a channel or current that occurs when waves wash up to the beach and cut a quick return path back out. The current is easily mistaken as water safe for swimming, but it can carry even the strongest swimmer hundreds of feet from shore in mere minutes. One goal of ParkPointBeach.org is to notify the public of this threat and teach them when and where to swim and how to break the "grip of the rip."
Messages about Great Lakes rip currents, bacteria warnings, hypothermia and other water dangers were brought to the 2013 Water Safety Expo in late July. Approximately 1,000 people visited Sea Grant staff and others throughout the daylong Expo toward the end of Park Point Beach.
"We need to create awareness of important issues and let folks know that Lake Superior can be dangerous, but there are tools to help people avoid being caught in bad situations," said Schomberg. "My hope is that ParkPointBeach.org becomes a community-supported website. The people responsible for safety on the beach, the businesses that cater to tourists and the residents of the community will be able to use it as a simple tool that encourages safety in coastal regions. I also hope it serves as a template for other beaches to replicate and keep their visitors safe."
The ParkPointBeach.org website provides accurate and timely updates of Park Point Beach conditions throughout Northland summers. Before you head to the beach, make sure to check ParkPointBeach.org. You can also help spread the word to others of this online tool by ordering T-shirts ($9), Frisbees ($1.50), and more at www.seagrant.umn.edu/publications.
ParkPointBeach.org development and marketing was funded through a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) grant given by the Environmental Protection Agency to Minnesota Sea Grant and partners at Wisconsin and Michigan Sea Grant, and the University of Minnesota Duluth's Natural Resources Research Institute. The overarching project, Beach Information Communications System, involves three Great Lakes beaches, one of which is Park Point.
*Partners: Minnesota Department of Health, City of Duluth Parks and Recreation Department, Duluth Fire Department, Duluth National Weather Service Office, Duluth Y, Minnesota's Lake Superior Coastal Program, Northland Red Cross and Visit Duluth.
By Emily Kolodge and Russell Habermann