From the ABC 7 Weather team

Rip Currents: A Deadly Ocean Phenomenon

August 27, 2014 - 12:45 PM
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Rip currents do not discriminate along our areas beaches-so how can you identify them and keep you and your family safe?

We definitely have been lucky in the tropical storm department for the most of this year along the eastern seaboard (with the exception of Hurricane Arthur in early July which did lead to some flooding). Hurricane Cristobal, which is churning just about 300 miles of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, Hurricane Cristobal will continue to move north-northeast avoiding the east coast of the United States.

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However, areas along the eastern seaboard will still indirectly get in on some of the action of Hurricane Cristobal and beachgoers are already starting to feel the effects.

All along the eastern seaboard, from Florida up through New York and Boston, a moderate to high risk for rip currents are being forecast as well as high surf advisories with large crash waves. Rip currents could occur so frequently that a lot of beachgoers for this last week in August are forbidden to enter the water considering the threat for rip currents is so high that it would be life-threatening to anyone entering the surf. These forecast include local Maryland, Delaware and Virginia beaches.

Heading into Labor Day weekend and with the unfortunate and untimely death of an 18 year old whom drowned Tuesday night in Ocean City, Maryland from getting caught in a rip current, I think it would be great to revisit rip current safety: how to recognize a rip current and how to properly save yourself. These currents can occur along any beach that features breaking waves (including the Great Lakes) and they are unfortunately subject to formation at any time during the day and more likely right before or just after low tide. The swells generated by Hurricane Cristobal and brisk onshore flow are creating the environment for a higher risk of rip currents.

According to the U.S. Lifesaving Association statistics, rip currents cause more than 100 drowning fatalities each year and 80% of all rescues on surf beaches nationwide are rip current related. Now, rip current speeds can vary and although rip currents at any speed are particularly dangerous for weak or non-swimmers, some have even been measured as fast as 8 feet per second-which is faster than an Olympic swimmer can swim! Generally though rip current speeds are typically 1 - 2 feet per second.

 So how do these things form and why? Well first what is a rip current? It can be summed up as a fast-moving narrow section of water that travels in the offshore direction. In some cases, the width of the rip current can extend to hundreds of yards.

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(Photos courtesy of National Weather Service)

Now how do these rip currents form? As waves near the shore and heads from deep water to shallow water, they break. As the waves break, they generate currents that flow in both offshore/seaward (away from the coast) and alongshore directions. Currents that flow away from the coast are called rip currents.

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(Photos courtesy of National Weather Service)

Although all beaches are susceptible to rip currents, the shape of the shoreline, the location of jetties, sandbars, groins and piers and the nearshore bottom design or bathymetry can all influence rip current development. Therefore, there are some beaches that are more prone to rip currents due to their topography.

So how to you identify rip currents?

Look for either one or more of these clues:

1. a channel of churning, choppy water

2. an area having a notable difference in water color

3. a line of foam, seaweed or debris moving steadily seaward

4. a break in the incoming wave pattern

Some rip currents can be weak and slow and be little to no threat for experienced swimmers, however, that can all change with a size or intensity of the next incoming wave. A strong wave can causes pulses in the strength of a rip current-so always be aware although most of the time, rip currents are not easily identifiable. *Safety tip - Polarized sunglasses make it easier to see rip currents*

Now on to the next: How do you survive rip currents?

First thing first: if you find yourself caught in a rip current, REMAIN CALM. A rip current is a horizontal current. They do not pull people under water but instead, pull them away from the shore. Most of the deaths that occur from rip currents happen when people are pulled offshore and are unable to keep themselves afloat because they can't swim to shore.

So here are some tips: Once you calm yourself, you can think more clearly so remaining calm is number one!

Secondly, DON'T FIGHT THE CURRENT. Swim out of the current parallel to the beach/shoreline. When you feel that you are out of the current, swim back towards the shore. If you are unable to swim out of the rip current, float or calmly tread water until you feel that you are not being pulled anymore. Don't exert any extra energy. Now, if these tips do not work, draw attention to yourself: face the shore, wave your arms and yell for help.

 

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(Photo courtesy of National Weather Service)

 Contact a lifeguard or 911 if needed! Many people drown while trying to save someone else from a rip current. The best thing you can do it throw the victim something that floats and yell instructions on how to escape.

ZZZZZSo enjoy the beach for the rest of this summer but remember that rip currents can happen along any beach with breaking waves! Keep you and your family safe and take the warning seriously.
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