The University of Windsor’s dean of science is working with officials in Costa Rica to prevent drowning deaths and improve beach safety by developing a better understanding of potentially hazardous rip currents.
Rip currents are powerful, narrow channels of fast-moving water that can swiftly transport swimmers a significant distance off-shore. They drown an estimated 50 people each year in Costa Rica, the leading cause of violent death in the country.
Chris Houser, professor of earth and environmental sciences, teamed with the National University of Costa Rica (UNA), the United States embassy in that country, and the Red Cross to develop new laws that would establish intervention programs and a lifesaving association responsible for training lifeguards to spot rip tides, as well as placing easily-recognizable warning systems on all major Costa Rican beaches.
Dr. Houser’s team worked with researchers from UNA to accurately measure rip currents in real time by using floats equipped with global positioning systems. He says the research attempts to measure the rip currents, determine which beaches have more dangerous currents and use this data to create prevention programs and train lifeguards.
“Most good swimmers can swim about 1.5 metres per second, whereas Michael Phelps set a record at 2.1 metres per second at the London Olympics,” says Houser. “At Playa Cocles beach, where we recorded the worst rips in Costa Rica, we found rips as strong as 2.8 metres per second, so even an Olympic swimmer could get swept up and drown trying to fight the current.”
There have been no drownings since 2004 at Playa Cocles, which is supervised by a lifeguard team expert in spotting rip currents. Each morning they place red flags on the beach directly in front of all the rip currents.
“This is a perfect example of how lifeguards who know what they are doing and have an intervention program and support of the local community, can save lives,” Houser says. “By bringing a lifeguard program to the entire country, it won’t just save lives but it will help sustain and build tourism economy, which is crucial for a country that survives on tourism dollars.”
Houser says this issue is relevant to the Great Lakes as well — 2016 was the worst year ever for drownings in the region. In Windsor, his research group will be using surveys to investigate the psychological angle of swimming and why people feel safe or unsafe at particular beaches.
In May 2017, Houser will return with undergraduates from the earth and environmental science program to further study the rip current problem at beaches on the Pacific and Caribbean sides of Costa Rica.