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Saving lives at sea

Problem Solved: university research answering today's challenges

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Our physical environment matters to everyone and understanding it better could save the many lives lost each year in difficult environmental conditions.

Rip currents are responsible for hundreds of drownings and more than 100,000 lifeguard rescues on beaches around the world every year. The presence of rip currents are often associated with beaches along the coasts of Australia and the United States, but they are very common in the UK too. Plymouth University, in partnership with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) and funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), are undertaking research to improve understanding of these hazardous rip currents.

RNLI lifeguards, who patrol beaches throughout the UK, report that rip currents are responsible for 70% of all surf related incidents that they respond to. This amounted to more than 1,000 rip current incidents during 2009.

Previous research at Plymouth University has identified the complex nature of rip current behaviour at UK beaches. Rip current systems are influenced by constantly varying wave and tide conditions, and beaches that change shape throughout the year. The current research project has been designed to improve our scientific understanding of these rip current systems and how they affect beach hazards. This improved knowledge is then passed on to the RNLI in a form that can have a significant impact on public safety.

Impact-led, academic research can provide groundbreaking science that save lives through a well-structured working partnership.

A better understanding of these relationships will mean that the RNLI will be able to provide their lifeguards with tools and additional training to help keep beaches safe when rip current hazards are high. In addition, the project findings will support public rip awareness programs.

The strong partnership between RNLI and Plymouth University has been developed over time with the RNLI providing field support and input on dissemination strategies. As well as driving the research, the University will incorporate its findings into the RNLI’s lifeguard training, public education programs, risk assessment procedures and resource management tools through a carefully researched and comprehensive impact plan.
This project provides an example of how impact-led, academic research can provide ground-breaking science that save lives through a well-structured working partnership.

The expertise at Plymouth University made this partnership essential.Their strengths in the marine science department made them an ideal partner. Not only has this research project advanced our knowledge about rip currents which will help us save lives, it has given our organisation international credibility in both academic and practice-based circles.”

Adam Wooler, Head of Research for RNLI