NOAA programs coming together to improve rip current safety
By Brent Schleck, Minnesota Sea Grant
An average of 12 people drown in the Great Lakes because of dangerous currents and waves each year. To help reduce this number, Sea Grant programs and others in the Great Lakes conduct research and outreach on dangerous currents and the associated risks to swimmers. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Coastal Storms Program is building upon this foundation by supporting projects that continue to improve beach-goer safety, such as the Be Current Smart campaign and Integrated Nowcast/Forecast Operation Systems (INFOS).
The Be Current Smart water safety campaign (CurrentSmart.org) is a collaboration between NOAA’s Sea Grant and Coastal Zone Management programs that involves input from the National Weather Service and others in the Great Lakes. The project is led by Michigan, Illinois-Indiana, Wisconsin Sea Grant programs, in partnership with Minnesota and Ohio Sea Grant programs. The campaign’s goal is to reach the beach-going public with water safety information and equipment. Be Current Smart focuses on:
1) Outreach materials like video animations, news releases, and social media resources available on CurrentSmart.org; and
2) Water safety and rescue equipment (like life jackets, throw rings, and rescue boards) deployed at hundreds of Great Lakes beaches.
“This is the first public outreach effort developed for the Great Lakes region and includes six Great Lakes states,” said Elizabeth LaPorte, Co-principal investigator of the project. “We hope to significantly reduce fatalities by providing both safety and rescue equipment, and consistent water safety messages and tips for teens and parents.” br>
The INFOS effort is led by researcher Chin Wu with the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Dr. Wu is working with Minnesota and Wisconsin Sea Grant programs to test and implement dangerous current detection systems in Duluth, Minnesota; Port Washington, Wisconsin; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. INFOS use near-shore observations from thermal imaging cameras and underwater instruments to detect when and how dangerous currents develop.
“The real-time measurements will actually identify existing rip currents and can be used to warn beach users that dangerous currents are present,” said Gene Clark, Coastal Engineer with Wisconsin Sea Grant. “That knowledge would almost certainly save lives.”
A threat that many only associate with the ‘salty’ coasts of the United States, dangerous currents (e.g. rip currents and structural currents) and waves also occur along some of the shores of the Great Lakes. A variety of physical and social factors contribute to the risk to human safety these currents pose, not the least of which is that with roughly 10,000 miles of coastline, many beach areas in the Great Lakes region lack lifeguards or quick access to emergency safety equipment. Despite their associated risks, Great Lakes beaches, piers, and breakwalls are culturally and economically important to many coastal communities.
As shown through these efforts, Great Lakes Sea Grant and Coastal Zone Management Programs, along with the NOAA Coastal Storms Program, share the goal of merging the science of dangerous waves and currents with education and outreach. Their collaborations will ensure better beach-goer safety in Great Lakes communities through improved forecasting and increased awareness.