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Rip Currents: The Unseen Danger

UPDATED July 2, 2014

By WeatherBug Meteorologist


What do you think is the cause for 80 percent of surf rescues and causes dozens of deaths a year?

Here are a few hints: it can happen at any beach with breaking waves; if you are not careful, it can take you out further into the ocean and if you swim against it, you will get nowhere.

What is this dangerous beach condition? It`s a rip current.

The first full week of June is Rip Current Awareness Week and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Lifesaving Association, the National Park Service, and WeatherBug want you to have a safe and enjoyable time at the beach this summer. Here is more information on these deadly currents:

Rip currents are strong, channeled currents of water flowing away from the shore. They usually go from the shoreline and past the line of breaking waves and can occur at any beach with breaking waves, including the Great Lakes.

Rip currents form because of the different intensity of waves breaking; this can cause narrow, fast-moving lines of water moving offshore. They tend to form at low spots or breaks in sandbars and near structures such as jetties and piers. Rip currents can be narrow or as wide as a football field. The seaward pull of the rip current can end just beyond the line of breaking waves, but can sometimes extend hundreds of yards out to sea.

Choppy water, notable difference in water color, a line of foam or debris moving seaward, or a break in incoming wave patterns are signs of rip currents. None, one, or more of these may be evidence to indicate the existence of rip currents.

Rip currents are the leading hazard for beachgoers. They are more dangerous for weak or non-swimmers with speeds as high as eight feet per second, and an average speed at one to two feet per second.

A rip current is a horizontal current, so it does not pull people under the water - - it pulls people away from shore. Drowning deaths occur when people are pulled away from shore and are unable to keep themselves above water and swim to safety.

Some safety tips while at the beach: swim at lifeguard protected beach, do not swim alone, obey instructions and orders from lifeguards and stay at least one hundred feet away from piers and jetties.

If caught in a rip current remain calm and do not fight it. To get out of the current, swim to the right or left then at an angle back to shore. If you are not able to swim out of the current let it take you out then swim towards shore, or draw the attention of the lifeguard on duty for help.


Story image courtesy of NOAA.

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