Rip Current Awareness Week: Spotlight on Texas Sea Grant funded researcher: Chris Houser
Associate Professor in Geography and Geology and Geophysics at Texas A&M University
Texas Sea Grant Funded Researcher Dr. Chris Houser. Credit: Texas A&M
Dr. Chris Houser is an Associate Professor in Geography and Geology and Geophysics at Texas A&M University. His general area of expertise is geomorphology, the study of the natural features of the earth and the physical processes that shape them. Dr. Houser is currently finishing up a Texas Sea Grant-funded study to analyze public perceptions of the rip current hazard on surf beaches. He and Dr. Christian Brannstrom conducted a survey of beach users on two heavily used public beaches in Texas with the help of graduate students Heather Lee, Sarah Trimble and Ana Santos. The results will be used to aid the development of new educational materials that improve the ability of beach users to identify and respond to hazardous rip conditions.
It’s Rip Current Awareness Week, how does your research help inform people about rip currents?
The hazard posed by a rip current partly depends on the ability of beach users to identify a rip current and to associate surf conditions with the potential for rip current development. Understanding what features beach users associate with rip currents is an important step in the development of educational materials aimed at improving the ability of beach users to identify a rip current. The results from our survey suggest a significant lack of rip knowledge among beach users in Texas, because only 13 percent of respondents correctly selected the photograph showing the most hazardous conditions and correctly identified the precise location of the rip current on a photograph. We are now trying to ascertain how and why this small subset of the beach users in Texas developed an understanding of rip currents, and whether this level of understanding could be translated to the general population through new programs and educational materials.
Rip current research
Sarah Trimble is one of three Texas A&M University graduate students who surveyed people on Texas beaches as part of Dr. Houser’s rip current research project. Credit Christian Brannstrom)
How did you come to work on coastal hazards research?
As a coastal geomorphologist, my research has always had a focus on coastal hazards, and I have a particular interest in understanding how barrier islands are impacted by and recover from hurricanes and tropical storms. My interest in public perception of rip currents started while my graduate students and I were conducting a field experiment on Pensacola Beach in northwest Florida. There we noticed people selecting areas of the beach with rip currents and swimming in the rip channels. Our conversations with those beach users revealed a lack of understanding about rip currents despite the presence of warning signs and flags at every entrance to the beach.
Where do you do most of your work? In a lab? In the field?
From conducting surveys of beach users to measuring the speed and behavior of the rips on Galveston Island and at Pensacola Beach, our research is primarily field based.
What is the piece of technology or equipment you could not do without?
The most important tools in fieldwork are a waterproof notebook and a good camera.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
Being in the field and working with undergraduate and graduate students who are learning to become scientists.
What is the biggest challenge you face in communicating the importance of your research?
We do not have a black and white understanding of the coastal environment, and it can be difficult to explain the shades of grey.
The rip current in this photo is on the left side of the groin, which unfortunately can appear to be the safest area because it has no heavy, breaking surf. Credit: Dr. Chris Houser
When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in science?
As a sophomore in high school after attending the Boyd Archaeological Field School run by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority.
What part of your job did you least expect to be doing?
Outreach, from presentations to public school children to coastal managers to the national media.
What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore a career in science?
This is a hard choice, but for someone interested in natural systems I would recommend To Interpret the Earth: Ten Ways to be Wrong by Stanley Schumm. This book clearly demonstrates how little we understand about natural systems and the many opportunities there are for future scientists.
And how about a personal favorite book?
Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.
Do you have an outside hobby?
What surprised you most about Sea Grant?
The ability of Sea Grant to bring the results of our research to the public and coastal managers. The outreach opportunities make the research satisfying.
Meet other people in the Sea Grant Network that help raise awareness of Rip Currents:
California Sea Grant funded researcher: Bob Guza, PhD
Michigan Sea Grant's Communication Director: Elizabeth LaPorte
North Carolina Sea Grant Extension Specialist: Spencer Rogers