August 20, 2009
Learning to Read Rip Currents Could Save Lives
As the season’s first hurricanes swing near the U.S. coast, churning out large waves, they bring the threat of dangerous rip currents all along the Atlantic Seaboard.
On the beach at Ocean City, Maryland, nearly a hundred lifeguards have their eyes trained on the waves, watching swimmers and looking for telltale signs of rip currents. Located right in the middle of the East Coast, Ocean City draws crowds of beachgoers from the Mid-Atlantic and beyond. The lifeguards know that rip currents can put swimmers’ lives at risk –– most drownings on American beaches are rip current drownings.
High above the beach, atop Ocean City’s Grand Hotel, three video cameras also sweep the surf, tracking the endless march of waves –– seven days a week, 365 days per year. These cameras track rip currents as they form, whether or not swimmers are in the water.
The cameras belong to Robert “Tony” Dalrymple and Varjola Nelko, two researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who are working to understand rip currents. They’ve filmed waves breaking on the beach for almost three years now, part of a project funded by Maryland Sea Grant. They know that rip currents usually occur when water piles up near shore then races seaward through a channel or break in a sandbar. Their goal is to come up with a better way of predicting exactly when and where this is likely to happen, a tool that could help save lives.
In a new article, “Reading the Rip,” veteran environmental writer Michael W. Fincham delves into the story behind this rip current research and the story of lifeguards who deal with rip currents in Ocean City every day. Fincham writes for the University of Maryland Sea Grant program, and his article is available online at www.mdsg.umd.edu/CQ.
Fincham’s known about rip currents all his life, since his mother almost drowned in one.
Though a strong swimmer, when his mother was a young woman she was carried away from the beach at Nags Head, North Carolina, and out past the breakers. According to family lore, she remained calm and floated. It was about 45 minutes before friends rescued her from the rough surf, but she survived, thanks to keeping her cool.
Swimmers don’t always keep calm when they find themselves being suddenly swept seaward. Caught off guard, many swimmers panic and try to battle back toward shore. It’s a battle that not even an Olympic swimmer can win.
According to the experts, a swimmer has two choices. Either swim to the side or float. By working to the side, a decent swimmer has a good chance of moving out of the flow. Once out of the current, swimming to shore becomes a feasible option. The second choice, floating, allows swimmers to conserve energy and avoid panic and exhaustion. Out past the sandbar, the rip current will dissipate, and swimmers can either swim back in or float and wait for help.
Every year, Sea Grant, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Lifesaving Association, and others conduct a national campaign to educate the public about the dangers of rip currents. Maryland Sea Grant has provided more than 150 metal rip current warning signs to Ocean City, Maryland, and to Assateague Island State Park — some in both English and Spanish — to alert swimmers about rip current dangers and the best ways to survive them.
Contacts: Jack Greer 301-405-6377, Michael W. Fincham 301-405-6382