With summer vacation on the horizon, NOAA and the National Park Service are alerting beach-goers to the threat of rip currents and how to prevent drowning from their strong and potentially fatal grip.
Rip currents are the leading surf hazard, claiming more than 100 lives per year nationally. For that reason, NOAA and NPS team up each year to raise awareness of the dangers of rip currents
Rip currents are narrow channels of fast-moving water that pull swimmers away from the shore. Moving at speeds of up to eight feet per second, rip currents are surprisingly strong and swift. They account for more than 80 percent of the tens of thousands of rescues performed by beach lifeguards in the United States annually.
How do rip currents form? Rip currents form when waves break near the shoreline, piling up water between the breaking waves and the beach. One of the ways this water returns to sea is to form a rip current, a narrow stream of water moving swiftly away from shore, often perpendicular to the shoreline. They can be as narrow as 10 or 20 feet in width though they may be up to ten times wider. The length of the rip current also varies. Rip currents begin to slow down as they move offshore, beyond the breaking waves, but sometimes extend for hundreds of feet beyond the surf zone.
Rip currents can be found on many surf beaches every day. Rip currents most typically form at low spots or breaks in sandbars, and also near structures such as groins, jetties and piers. Rip currents can occur at any beach with breaking waves, including the Great Lakes.
The danger occurs when people pulled offshore by the rip current are unable to keep themselves afloat and swim to shore. This may be due to any combination of fear, panic, exhaustion, or lack of swimming skills. Rip currents are the greatest surf zone hazard to all beachgoers. They can sweep even the strongest swimmer out to sea. Rip currents are particularly dangerous for weak and non-swimmers.
If you are caught in a rip current, swim in a direction following the shoreline. When free of the current, swim at an angle away from the current toward shore. Swimmers who try to swim against a rip current straight back to shore often fail to overcome its strength, risking exhaustion and drowning.
Rip currents can form at all surf beaches so keep these safety tips in mind:
- Check for surf zone forecasts
- Look for signs and flags posted to warn about rip currents;
- Do not swim against a rip current;
- Escape rip currents by swimming in a direction following the shoreline until you are free of the rip current;
- Never swim alone.
“Sea Grant and the National Weather Service have placed rip current signs in English and Spanish on ocean and Great Lakes beaches throughout the nation to warn swimmers of the dangers posed by this hazard. It is critical that all beach-goers know how to identify a rip current, and that they know what to do if they are caught in one,” said Dr. Leon M. Cammen, director of NOAA's National Sea Grant College Program.
NOAA understands and predicts changes in the Earth's environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and conserves and manages our coastal and marine resources.