Your Guide to Rip Currents [Updated Sept. 2018]
by Daphne Thompson, on Sep 7, 2016 1:30:30 PM
So far this year, 47 people have died due to rip currents, more than from tornadoes. Often called “rips,” strong currents are funneled because of geological features that work to amplify their flows. Over 80% of lifeguard responses are due to rip currents. If you are at the beach and see double red flags posted, this means you need to stay out of the water. Even the strongest swimmers can have trouble with a rip current.
Any body of water capable of generating significant, clapping waves can create rip currents. After they clap, the currents move away from shore. The downward force of a rip current is well inhibited when it sinks under the force of gravity and bombards more water molecules. It’s popularly believed that the force pulls swimmers downward. However, the vertical effect is almost negligible compared to the horizontal force. Typically they flow around a foot per second, but can push more than eight feet per second.
Tropical Systems Will Churn Up Dangerous Rip Currents
Rip currents can manifest on sunny days without a cloud in the sky but are typically sped up by storm winds. As Tropical Storm Florence, expected to become a major hurricane, approaches the East Coast, the threat and intensity of rip currents will increase. Before they’re deflected, rip currents start as strong forces pushing inland, so the cyclonic flow of a hurricane makes the region of greatest threat the northwestern quadrant, especially near the eye where winds are their strongest.
Escaping a Rip Current
Surviving a rip current is possible. Respecting the horizontal force by understanding the current will only last a few dozen meters are essential when caught. Don't fight the current; instead you should swim parallel to the shore. Most of the drownings that occur are due to panic or exhaustion from fighting directly against the force of the current, although rocky and otherwise dangerous beaches easily complicate self-rescuing. Sometimes it’s also possible to spot the rip current: by tracking floating objects and looking for trails of foam in relatively calmer waters. Given an understanding of what they look like and what they do, they need not be feared by an experienced swimmer in obstacle-free, open waters.
**Author's Note: This blog was updated on September 7, 2018 for the current hurricane season.