Summer Safety: What is a Rip Current and Why is it Dangerous?

Summer vacation season is in full swing across the US. As millions of people head to beaches to have fun and beat the heat, it is important to remember that the ocean is a dynamic environment that can pose a number of hazards for swimmers. Chief among these are rip currents.

Rip currents are fast, localized channels of water moving away from the shoreline. According to NOAA, they are a result of “complex interactions between waves, currents, water levels, and nearshore bathymetry.” They can form in several different ways on any beach with breaking waves. That said, they are typically found at breaks in sandbars and along permanent structures that extend out into the water such as jetties or piers.

Moving at speeds up to 8 feet per second – which is faster than an Olympic swimmer – rip currents can easily drag unsuspecting swimmers hundreds of yards out to sea.  While they will not pull anyone underwater, they can cause fatigue and panic. According to the U.S. Lifesaving Association, rip currents are responsible for 80% of all surf zone rescues. Nationally, they cause more than one hundred deaths every year.

To spot a rip current, look for a gap in the breaking waves.  This is where the water is forcing its way back out to sea. The area also usually appears murky and darker than the surrounding water.  On guarded beaches, red flags often indicate hazardous conditions for swimmers.

If caught in a rip current, the Red Cross recommends not trying to swim against it.  Instead, they say to swim parallel to the shoreline until you are out of the current. Once free, you can start swimming back toward the beach.

For more information on beach safety, visit: http://www.redcross.org/prepare/disaster/water-safety/beach-safety

Credit: NOAA

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About Melissa Fleming

Melissa Fleming is an environmental communicator and visual artist working at the intersection of art and science. She is passionate about exploring, learning, and sharing information about the natural world. She has presented her interdisciplinary work in a variety of mediums at venues and conferences around the world.