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Rip Currents: Preparedness and Prevention

NOAA Ocean Podcast: Episode 66

Rip currents pose a threat to those that spend time in the ocean or Great Lakes. In this episode, Dr. Gregory Dusek, senior scientist with NOAA’s National Ocean Service, talks with us about rip currents, NOAA’s national rip current forecast model, and ways to protect yourself and others from this public safety risk.

Listen to our podcast and be sure to watch this short video to ensure you know how to survive a dangerous rip current. Remember: If caught in a rip current, swim parallel to the beach to escape the current.


HOST: This is the NOAA Ocean Podcast. I’m Marissa Anderson. People who recreate at or work in coastal areas or the shores of the Great Lakes may be impacted by powerful, fast-moving channels of water known as rip currents. Rip currents can move faster than an Olympic swimmer, and every year lifeguards rescue tens of thousands of people in the U.S. who are caught in them. Today’s podcast discusses what rip currents are and how NOAA is helping to keep people safe from them. We’re joined by Gregory Dusek, senior scientist with NOAA’s National Ocean Service. Please note this podcast was recorded over the internet, and the audio may be a bit spotty at times. Let’s dive right in...

HOST: So we're very excited to be able to talk to you today on the topic of rip currents and NOAA's rip current model. So to set the stage for our discussion, can we start with the basics on what a rip current is and clear up any misconceptions on them for our listeners? Just for an example, I grew up by the beach. And when I was first learning about what rip currents were, they were often referred to as rip tides, which is not the correct term. So can you please tell us what a rip current is, what causes them, and where do they typically occur?

DUSEK: So the first thing to think about with rip currents is just to understand how big of a public safety risk they are. So I think when most people think about weather-related hazards, they probably think about things like tornadoes or lightning. And while those are really important and can certainly cause a lot of trouble, rip current ranks ahead of both of those in the number of deaths per year in the US. We estimate about 100 rip current drownings per year, and that ranks third behind extreme heat and flooding, so from a public safety perspective certainly something you want to be aware of. In terms of what rip currents are, they're seaward-directed jets of water that originate in the surf zone. And they occur on any beach that has breaking waves. So that means anywhere along the ocean coast as well as places like the Great Lakes, which I think most people don't think about when they think about rip currents. And rip currents can be anywhere from 50 to 200 feet wide. They can go offshore to maybe a quarter mile or so in some cases, so they can go pretty far off the beach. And they can reach speeds exceeding about five miles per hour, which I know to most people probably sounds pretty slow. But if you consider that the world record in, say, the men's 100-meter butterfly is about five miles per hour, the average speed unless you are a really strong swimmer or even if you're a really strong swimmer, rip currents can cause a huge problem. I think what you mentioned in terms of rip tides - yeah, that's kind of another common term that people use to describe rip currents. But we try to shy away from that in part because it doesn't describe the actual phenomena. It's not a tide. It's a current. It's something that pulls you from shore. And so that's why over the years, we've really stressed the term rip current. And we've seen that right now I think a lot of people understand at least what rip currents are.

Dr. Gregory Dusek, senior scientist, NOAA’s National Ocean Service

Dr. Gregory Dusek, senior scientist, NOAA’s National Ocean Service

HOST: So that's really interesting to know that they can occur in the Great Lakes as well. I was not aware of that. I'm sure most of our listeners might not be familiar with that also. Let's talk about NOAA's rip current model, which you developed. You had mentioned previously how rip currents are a public hazard. Now with the creation of the model, could you kind of give us a bit of background on why it was created and what information it provides?

DUSEK: The model was created because we wanted to give people information about when and where to expect hazardous rip currents. And so the model is a combination of a computer model that predicts water levels and waves along the beach along with a machine learning model, which is kind of like a statistical model that predicts the likelihood of hazardous rip currents occurring from 0% to 100% so not unlike some other types of forecasts like a precipitation forecast, for instance, it provides that information. And we're able to provide those likelihoods every mile or so along the beach, going out every hour up to six days into the future. And so it really provides good guidance to the public to be able to really understand what is my risk for my particular beach and for when I'm going to be going to the beach.

HOST: And for this model, what coastlines are monitored? Is it all the U.S. coasts and the Great Lakes?

DUSEK: So the rip current model is operational now along most of the continental United States. We are working on operationalizing it at some sections in the Gulf that we haven't gotten to yet. It's experimental in a couple of locations in the Gulf right now, but most of the Gulf is covered. On the West Coast, it's operational in Southern California, and we're working on validating it, operationalizing it along the rest of the West Coast. And so those regions should be coming online here pretty shortly. The Great Lakes is not up and running. That's kind of a future plan. And then we also have the model operational at several Pacific islands, including the Hawaiian Islands and Puerto Rico.

HOST: So what are the benefits of having this predictive capability and for people to know if their location will be impacted by a rip current?

DUSEK: That really gets down to preparedness and prevention. So to answer that question, I think we have to look back to 2004, which is when NOAA, partnering with the United States Life Saving Association, created the Break the Grip of the Rip program. And so if you've been to any beach along the U.S., there's a good chance you've seen one of those signs that say Break the Grip of the Rip. You see an image of a rip current. And it gives guidance to people on what to do if you're caught in a rip current, which is to stay calm, don't swim straight back to shore, don't fight the current — swim out of the current along the beach until you’re out of the current and then back to the beach at an angle. And that guidance has largely been pretty successful. We did some surveys recently and found something like 90% of those surveyed of those beachgoers that we surveyed were generally aware of rip currents and what to do if they're caught in one. But despite that success, as I mentioned, we're still seeing the same number of rip current drownings every year, something like 100 rip current drownings per year. And so then the question becomes, what else can we do? What other information can we provide so that people don't get into that hazardous situation in the first place? And so one piece of that is this rip current forecast so that people have that information before they go to the beach. They hopefully see especially when rip currents are going to be high likelihood in their location. And then they can use that to make intelligent decisions. Maybe they don't want to go in the water that day. Maybe they want to make sure they swim near a lifeguard if rip currents are predicted to be hazardous. And so, hopefully, that information can help reduce the number of drownings that we see every year.

HOST: Now that information sounds extremely helpful. I mean, a lot of folks would absolutely benefit from having these warnings ahead of time — mariners, beachgoers, tourists, I'm sure. So how is then this information communicated to members of the public that need to know this and that would potentially be impacted by rip currents?

DUSEK: So one way people can get this information is through their local National Weather Service weather forecast office. Those are the offices that issue weather forecasts, but also the rip current forecast. And they can do that through weather.gov or going to weather.gov/beach, where they can find their particular weather forecast office and see the forecast there. They can also get the information through their local media. We partner with local meteorologists, weather media and they deliver the forecast information to the public as well. Also, national media, some of our national media partners weather media partners provide the forecast information also. And then even some weather forecast apps. So some of the apps you have on your phone will sometimes, if you're at the beach, will notify you if there's a hazardous rip current high risk in effect.

HOST: This sounds like such a great resource to help keep people safe when they enjoy their time at the beach or work at the beach. Do you have any other tips for how our listeners can help themselves stay safe from the threat of rip currents?

DUSEK: I think the important thing to remember is that the forecast is just one piece of the puzzle, right? Again really, what you can do to stay safe is to be prepared. Be prepared before you go to the beach for rip currents and other hazards. And so, in addition to the forecast information, in addition to checking that before you go to the beach, the number one thing you can do is to swim near a lifeguard. Your chances of drowning at a life-guarded beach are something like one in 18 million compared to an unguarded beach. And so that's one of the best things you can do to keep you and your loved ones safe. Of course, not all beaches are guarded, and not all beaches are guarded all the time. So that may not be an option for you. So, in addition to checking the forecast model, we also encourage people to learn more about rip currents, how to spot them, again what to do if caught in one, and what to do if you see someone else caught in a rip current. And you can find all that information on our resources, on our NOAA resources, where we have videos and other types of printed information and information on our website. And so we encourage you to check that out before you go to the beach so you can be best prepared for rip currents and hopefully just have an enjoyable day at the beach with your family.

HOST: How can people tell if the water they are looking to enter has a rip current?

a rip current shown using green dye

Rip currents are powerful, channeled currents of water that can move at speeds of up to eight feet per second, and can occur at any beach with breaking waves. This image shows a rip current using a harmless green dye.

DUSEK: Spotting a rip current can be really challenging even for people who are trained in this sort of thing. But the average beachgoer can do it. And what we recommend is the first thing if you want to try to identify a rip current is you want to be at an elevated position. So when you first show up at the beach, don't just head down to the water because it's really hard to see rip currents when you're close to the water surface. You really want to stand up somewhere high. So a great spot is the beach access which typically is a little more elevated than the beach itself. You want to stand there look at the ocean surface for a few minutes because it can take a little while to kind of orient yourself and see what's happening. And then you want to look for some key characteristics. And so one of those things is where waves aren't breaking. So rip currents often occur in kind of flat spots in the line of breaking waves because that indicates deeper water. And so you can often see that if you watch the breakers for a few minutes along shore. You might also see kind of sediment or sand filled water or foam on the water surface. And that might be kind of stretched out pulled from shore. And that can be a sign of a rip current as well.

HOST: Now, is it true that if you’re caught in a rip current, it doesn’t actually pull you under, but it will pull you out and away from the shore?

DUSEK: Yeah, that's correct. It's a common misconception that rip currents will pull you underwater. And that's one reason I think that people often panic because they're kind of fearful of getting kind of sucked under the water. But the big thing is as long as you can stay afloat, as long as you can stay on the water surface, you're gonna be okay. And so that's one of the reasons that we tell people if you feel yourself caught in a rip, the first thing you wanna do is relax and float because you're not gonna get pulled under. You're just gonna get pulled away from shore. And then once you do that, you can assess your situation and think about how best to escape, which, again, as often we'll tell people to swim along shore out of the rip current and then back to shore at an angle. But even if you can't, if you're struggling to swim or you're not a strong swimmer, if you just float, there's the chance that the rip might bring you back to shore by itself. Some rip currents actually circulate. And so they can carry you back to shore if you just stay afloat. Or if you're swimming at a lifeguarded beach, if you float, that'll give time for the lifeguard or the public safety person to get out there and rescue you.

HOST: Now, what advice would you give to folks if they're on the shore and they happen to see somebody in distress, they were caught in a rip current? What should that person do?

DUSEK: If you're at the beach [and] you see someone caught in a rip, what you don't wanna do is just rush into the water. I think that's people's kind of natural instinct — especially if it's a loved one, right? It's hard to say to someone hey, I see someone I really care about; it looks like they're struggling. You just wanna go in there and get them. But what we tell people to do is to really take 10 seconds and evaluate the situation. And so what that means is first, if you're at a lifeguarded beach, the first thing you wanna do is get a lifeguard. That's the best situation. If you're not at a guarded beach, then you want to call 9-1-1 or have someone call because even if that person gets out of the rip current, they may need health support once they get to the beach. Ideally, if you can, if you have something that floats nearby, and that can be a boogie board, a surfboard, even a cooler, try to get it to them. Throw it out if they're within reach. Get them something that floats because really, again, you're just trying to keep them on top of the water surface. And then lastly, if you can't get something that floats them, they're still struggling if you have to enter the water if really that's the only option, you wanna take something that floats with you because even lifeguards when they go in to make a rescue they have flotation with them. And that's the number one thing you can do to make sure that if you do make a rescue that you aren't the one that drowns.

HOST: This is the NOAA Ocean Podcast. Check out our show notes to learn more about rip currents and NOAA’s rip current model. Be sure to subscribe to us on your podcast player of choice and catch all of our episodes.