According to statistics compiled by the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, over 95 people have drowned in the Great Lakes in 2012. A large number of these deaths were caused by dangerous rip currents present in the Great Lakes. A student group from Williamston High School (Williamston InvenTeam) is developing a self-sustaining alert system that detects rip currents in the Great Lakes and warns people of the danger. Present warning systems rely on predictions based on general water and weather conditions. Our device, the Offshore Rip Current Alert (ORCA) system, will detect the actual presence of rip currents in specific locations. This device, contained in a buoy, will be powered by solar energy, be easily deployable, and cost effective.
The Williamston High School InvenTeam chose to address the real-life problem of rip currents. Rip currents are potentially high velocity channels of water flowing seaward from the nearshore region. They can occur at any beach with breaking waves, including the Great Lakes. Formed through breaks in sand bars, these channels are difficult to recognize from ground level. Since these currents can approach speeds of eight feet per second – a speed which even top Olympic swimmers cannot reach – they present major threats to Great Lakes beachgoers. It is important to note that these events are not limited to the Great Lakes; indeed, hundreds of more casualties occur worldwide as a result of rip currents. However, due to the challenge of adapting our invention to a saltwater environment, we have chosen to focus on the freshwater Great Lakes for our initial prototype.
This problem is further exacerbated by the large number of uncertainties about rip currents. It is very difficult to determine where, how and why rip currents occur. For example, they will often move down the shoreline throughout the day, complicating efforts to identify their location. Signs and flags warning beachgoers of the dangers of rip currents in the Great Lakes are often ignored.
It can clearly be seen that swimmers at both private and public Great Lakes beaches would benefit from our invention. Our system will be low maintenance thanks to solar energy, a quality design and reliable materials. The ORCA system will have the potential to warn swimmers when a rip current poses an imminent danger. Of course, the ultimate goal of the Williamston High School InvenTeam and the ORCA system is to reduce the number of drownings in the Great Lakes.