Drowning and Climate Change

Lifeguards walking along beach

The planet is warming.

“In 2018, we burned a quarter of a million kilograms of coal, 116 million liters of gas, and 7 million liters of oil…every SECOND. In the span of just 50 years, atmospheric CO2 emissions have reached the highest concentrations in over 3 million years. The consequent trapping of longwave radiation has led to energy gain (1750-2011) at a rate the equivalent of four Hiroshima Bombs each SECOND. Polar ice is melting and sea levels are rising. When we add energy to the atmosphere, we get weather – more of it, and ever more extreme,” as outlined in “Matters of Life and Death,” Montgomery & Tipton (2019).

Many of you (myself included) see and feel its effects around you.

What does this have to do with drowning and CPR? We are just returning from the International Drowning Researchers’ Alliance (IDRA) conference, which met to discuss the research agenda for drowning as it relates to climate change. Climate change results in changing drivers for recreational, occupational, and daily interaction with bodies of water, increased frequency of unsafe exposure to water, changing environments locally, changing risks for individuals, changing risks for rescuers, increased burden on rescuers, and increased burden on health services.

We anticipate that, as the planet warms, there will be a growing global burden of drowning. While the initial thought may go to the increased flooding from natural disasters, there are additional considerations. It is forecast that in the next 50 years, 1-3 billion people will be living outside of survivable areas. There will be an additional 750 million that are currently living below the projected high-tide line. These major factors, combined with changing patterns of wild game and inarable soil, will drive massive human migration. Already treacherous routes such as the one from North Africa to Europe will become even more so. Rising water levels and the search for clean drinking water will force billions to make risky crossings to find safety or daily sojourns for fresh water.

More than 90% of global drowning deaths are in low- and middle-income countries. In addition to increased drowning from flooding, migration and reconcentration of populations will cause an increase in diarrheal disease like cholera and zoonotic diseases, including avian influenza, SARS-CoV-2 and monkeypox, among others. Mitigation and response efforts will face new challenges. Increasing temperatures means increased risk to all people for heat illness. Particularly at risk will be rescuers that respond to many of these disasters; consideration must be given to the increased heat stress of rescuers in personal protective equipment such as wetsuits, drysuits, turnout gear, etc. Contamination of floodwaters and rivers with infectious agents, petroleum products, and other toxic chemicals will increase risk to rescuers and the general population alike. Agencies will need to develop strategies to mitigate climate change as well as adapt to the things we cannot change.

One such adaptation that was promoted at the conference, and is currently being implemented, is the use of life jackets during tsunamis. The Maldives recently passed legislation requiring life jackets be placed in every hotel room with the hope that they are utilized if there is a tsunami or flash flood. While it may seem like a simple solution, the logistics can be quite difficult. It is apropos that this model of having life jackets in every room is adapted from the cruise ship industry. Cruise ships are manmade structures subject to the tides and whims of the ocean, able to exist and sustain life through carefully planned and allocated resources. With the contraction of the polar icecap, there has been increased maritime activity in polar waters, especially cruise ships. This change increases the likelihood of the need for remote search and rescue activity over thousands of miles.

At the risk of being doom and gloom, all of this begs the question — What can I do as an individual? The first step is acknowledging that there is a problem and that we must act urgently to mitigate the impending disastrous consequences. The hardest thing to do is to change human behavior and big change is required. Fortunately, this can be accomplished by many small changes. People must demand of their representatives that climate change mitigation is high on the list of priorities. Ask the organizations you deal with if they have a climate change policy, a sustainability officer, environment friendly procurement policies, support those groups that do. Join and support organizations working to save our environment. Then think about all those things you can do personally to reduce your carbon footprint, from travel to local and seasonal eating, and many other actions (The Physiological Society, 2021).

We believe that climate advocate Dr. Elizabeth Sawin said it best: “Everyone doesn’t need to leave their [professional] field and convert to a climate practitioner. But everyone does need to figure out how their field might best contribute to protecting the climate, and how the climate change we can’t prevent will impact their field.”

We hope that this at least starts the conversation. The solutions will not lie just with rescuers and researchers, but will also require accountants, engineers, artists, physiologists, lawyers, and the entire range of human experience and expertise to ensure that our planet is habitable and humane for our children and grandchildren.

Thank you to Justin Sempsrott, MD, an EMS/Emergency Medicine Physician in North Carolina, the co-founder of Lifeguards Without Borders, a 20-year ocean lifeguard with the American Red Cross Volunteer Lifesaving Corps and a previous HEARTSafe Community webinar speaker, for contributing this article to Currents. Dr. Sempsrott’s co-author on the article is Professor Mike Tipton, MBE, PhD, MSc, FTPS, Professor of Human & Applied Physiology, Extreme Environments Laboratory, School of Sport Health & Exercise Science, University of Portsmouth, UK.


Article Sources:

Montgomery H. & Tipton MJ (2019) Matters of life and death: Change beyond planetary homeostasis. Experimental Physiology Editorial.

The Physiological Society (2021) Physiology and climate change. Appendix (Montgomery & Tipton).


Survivors, Rescuers Reunited in New Hampshire

What better way to celebrate the power of the chain of survival, including bystander action, than by reuniting SCA survivors with the people who helped rescue them?

Dartmouth Health member Cheshire Medical Center recently hosted the first Rescuers Reuniting With the Rescued: A Celebration of Survival, bringing together 10 people who experienced SCA in 2021 and those who saved them, including:

  • 911 telecommunications dispatchers
  • Bystanders who performed CPR
  • Law enforcement officers who used AEDs
  • Fire department first responders
  • EMS clinicians

SCA survivors attending the event included Pauline Johansen, 71, who collapsed while raking leaves last September. As Ryan Spencer reported for The Keene Sentinel, two sisters and neighbors — Emma and Camryn Carey — stopped while driving by, called 911 and performed CPR for seven minutes until rescue personnel arrived.

At Rescuers Reuniting with the Rescued, Pauline got to thank Emma and Camryn with a hug.

“I want to thank my guardian angels,” Johansen said, as quoted in The Keene Sentinel.

The event also gave organizers and attendees a chance to recognize the region’s high bystander CPR rates — around 70%, according to a press release from Cheshire Medical Center.

“These high rates are likely due to telecommunicators at 911 recognizing patients who are in cardiac arrest and directing bystanders to perform CPR,” said Jim Suozzi, DO, associate medical director and EMS medical director, Cheshire Medical Center. “National CPR and AED Awareness Week, June 1-7, highlights the importance of knowing how to perform CPR and use an AED. We also wanted to take this opportunity to celebrate these remarkable saves and promote awareness.”

Cheshire Medical Center, Best Western Plus Keene, Tempesta’s Restaurant and ZOLL, a Citizen CPR Foundation partner, teamed up to sponsor Rescuers Reuniting with the Rescued.

Read more about Rescuers Reuniting with the Rescued in The Keene Sentinel and also tune into WKBK Radio’s Good Morning with Dan Mitchell for an interview with a panel of CPR and AED experts, including Dr. Suozzi. If you have an SCA save story that you’d like to share with Citizen CPR Foundation, please reach out to Katy Schamberger. Click here to send Katy an email.