SSo far, there have been 37 very unlucky people in 2023. They are the ones who went scuba diving, snorkelling, surfing, or venturing into the ocean and ended up being victims of unprovoked shark attacks. Six of the attacks were fatal; one led to a severed foot; others resulted in varying degrees of various injuries. Thirty-seven is a scary number, especially since summer in the northern hemisphere has just begun. Last year, 81 unprovoked shark attacks were reported around the world. Since the beginning of the 21st century, the bloodiest year was 2015, when 111 humans, who did nothing to anger the sharks beyond venturing into their waters, were attacked.
All of this information, and much more, is available at the Global Shark Attack File, which maintains a running count and spreadsheet of human-shark encounters dating back to 1845. For the curious, studious, or just plain morbid, the spreadsheet records everything from the nature of the injury to the gender of the victim, the species of the shark, the location of the attack and more. But what most people want to know is less about what happened in decades past and more about what’s happening today: How safe is it for you to venture out to sea this summer without ending up as a predator’s dinner? The answer requires a bit of analysis.
For starters, there is no denying that from 1950 to 2020, the total number of unprovoked shark attacks has increased, rising from 50 in the middle of the last century to over 80 in 2020, and reaching that peak of 111 in 2015. So Either the sharks are getting meaner or the humans are getting sloppy, or something else is going on to put the two species in the path of each other, right? Not necessarily.
It is not just the raw number of shark attacks that makes the difference, but the rate of shark attacks: how many encounters per million people. In 1950, the world population was 2.5 billion people. Today it is a little more than 8 billion. Cross the numbers by the rate of unprovoked shark attacks per million people and things stay pretty flat, at 0.012 per million in 1950 and 0.010 in 2020.
But that’s not to say there aren’t some confusing numbers in the data record that experts are struggling to explain. From 2012 to 2022, for example, there were an average of 12.6 unprovoked shark attacks per billion people on earth, and from 1950 to 1960 the number was 11.8, not much of a difference. However, during the 1970s and 1980s, the attack rate plummeted to 6.5 per billion.
It’s tempting to attribute at least part of this to the so-called Jaws Effect, a term coined by Christopher Neff, a professor of public policy at the University of Sydney, to explain the film’s overall detrimental effect. jaws it had on public opinion about sharks, and the untold number of tourists it drove out of the ocean. Arguing against the Jaws effect is the fact that shark attacks were already on the decline in 1970, five years before the film was released on June 20, 1975, at 8.39 attacks per billion. On the other hand, those figures plummeted sharply in 1976 and 1977, to 5.55 and 3.08 respectively, perhaps reflecting the influence of the film and beachgoers’ avoidance of the ocean.
“The film’s socio-psychological saturation as a summer blockbuster and psychological meme is widespread,” Neff wrote in a 2015 article. “It is important to note that many modern depictions of sharks reflect elements of jaws in ways that suggest humans are on the menu.”
But if sharks have gotten a kick-ass on the screen, and if the actual rate per million shark attacks hasn’t increased since 1950, that’s not to say we’re not increasing our chances of a nasty encounter when we hit the ocean. As with so many other things, climate change is to blame.
Read more: How climate change is driving an increase in shark attacks
A 2016 study in Advances in Oceanography He warned that higher ocean temperatures were pushing shark species from the warmer, sparsely populated southern hemisphere to the colder, more populated north, raising the odds of shark-human encounters. Additionally, higher temperatures also mean more bathers and bathers, providing more potential bait for sharks.
“Every year we should have more attacks than the last because there are more humans entering the water, and they are spending more hours in the water,” George Burgess, director of the Florida Shark Research Program, told TIME when the article was published. More recently, a 2021 study in scientific reports blamed climate change, and sharks’ search for cooler waters, for “unprecedented sightings” of great white sharks in California’s Monterey Bay.
No matter how much we are increasing the risk of humans and sharks facing off against each other, in a world of 8 billion people, the chance of any one person being attacked is still very small. That’s the good news. The bad news is that every year, a handful of people end up on the wrong end of those very high odds. The best advice? Swim if you wish, but stay alert.
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