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National Rip Current Awareness Week is June 5-11

3:25 p.m., June 6, 2005--Would you know what to do if you got caught in a rip current?

According to the U.S. Lifesaving Association, rip currents cause more than 100 drownings a year in the United States and 80 percent of all rescues on surf beaches nationwide.

Wendy Carey, coastal processes specialist for the Delaware Sea Grant Marine Advisory Service, has been working with Delaware’s coastal communities, beach patrols and the National Weather Service to increase public awareness of rip currents. Last year, she helped launch the national “Break the Grip of the Rip” campaign developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Lifesaving Association. In recognition of NOAA’s inaugural National Rip Current Awareness Week, from June 5-11, Carey provides the following public safety information.

What is a rip current?

Rip currents are powerful, channelized currents of swiftly flowing water moving out to sea. They typically extend from near the shoreline out past the line of breaking waves. They are dangerous because they can pull even the strongest swimmers into deep water.

Why and where do rip currents occur?

Rip currents can occur along any coastline with breaking waves. Research has shown that rip currents are likely present on most beaches every day as a component of the complex pattern of nearshore circulation. As waves travel from deep to shallow water, they eventually break near the shoreline. As waves break along the coast, they generate currents that flow in both the offshore (away from the coast) and the alongshore directions. The currents flowing away from the coast are rip currents. Rip currents also can occur at groins, jetties, piers and other man-made structures where water can be funneled out to sea in a narrow channel.

Wendy Carey (second from right), coastal processes specialist for the Delaware Sea Grant Marine Advisory Service, describes the nearshore observation program estabished at Dewey Beach to Tim Schott and Therese Pierce (left), from NOAA National Weather Service headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., and Todd Fritchman, captain of the Dewey Beach Patrol.
How do scientists study rip currents?

Coastal scientists have been investigating rip currents for more than 75 years. Generally, this research has been conducted through field observations and measurements, laboratory measurements and wave tank experiments, and computer and numerical modeling.

In Delaware Sea Grant research at UD’s Center for Applied Coastal Research, coastal engineers are using computer models and wave basin experiments to learn more about the development of rip currents. In a 4,500-square-foot wave basin, they are studying how rip currents form and interact with an artificial offshore bar and sloping beach. They also are working to develop and install coastal observation and video-monitoring systems along Delaware’s and Maryland’s Atlantic coast beaches to further enhance rip current modeling and prediction efforts.

Why are rip currents so dangerous?

Rip currents are especially hazardous because they can be difficult to identify and they are often encountered by people who have no experience with ocean waves or currents. Additionally, when rip current formation is driven by offshore swells generated by a distant tropical storm, the worst rip currents actually may occur when there is ideal weather at the coast.

It’s extremely important to understand that changes in rip current velocity can occur very rapidly with random increases in incoming wave heights and water levels, catching unwary beachgoers and swimmers off-guard. Some rip currents have been measured at up to 8 feet per second--that’s faster than an Olympic swimmer can sprint!

Can you detect a rip current before getting in the water?

Here are some clues to look for:

  • A channel of churning, choppy water,
  • A line of sea foam, seaweed, or debris moving steadily seaward,
  • Different-colored water beyond the surf zone, and
  • A break in the incoming wave pattern as waves roll into shore.

What should you do if you get caught in a rip current?

If you get caught in a rip current, remain calm, and try to float or tread water. Don’t swim against the current, as this is difficult for even experienced swimmers. Swim along the shoreline until you feel the current relax, or let the current carry you until it slows down. Then swim toward the shore at an angle. If you are unable to reach shore, wave your arms and yell for help. Rip currents are a serious reminder why it’s so important to know how to swim, and to swim only at beaches with lifeguards.

Where can I get more information about rip currents?

For a free brochure, contact Delaware Sea Grant at (302) 645-4346. For online information, visit Delaware Sea Grant’s rip current web site at [http://www.ocean.udel.edu/ripcurrents/] and NOAA’s rip current web site at [http://www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov/].

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