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Making New Waves on Gripping the Rip

Working on improved rip current preparedness

By Helen Cheng, National Sea Grant Office and Robin Garcia, National Sea Grant Office


As the summer season approaches and beach enthusiasts hit the road, there is an underlying danger that many people are not aware of. Rip currents are powerful, channeled currents of water flowing away from shore that quickly pull swimmers out to sea and account for more than 80% of rescues performed by beach lifeguards. In an effort to advance the forecasting and communication of rip currents and other coastal hazards, NOAA hosted a Coastal Hazards Resilience Workshop. The workshop was jointly led by the NOAA Coastal Storms Program, National Weather Service’s (NWS) Office of Science and Technology Integration, and NOAA’s North Atlantic Regional Team (NART) and Southeast and Caribbean Regional Team (SECART). Attendees included multiple Sea Grant programs, emergency managers, lifeguards, media, and the research community.

The purpose of the workshop was to assess current rip current forecast models and establish partnerships and personal relationships between weather forecasters and local lifeguards to obtain near real-time rip current observations and validation of forecasts. Presentations began a conversation about improving the message concerning the dangers of rip currents to beachgoers. One workshop presentation allowed attendees to evaluate the Rip Current Pilot Project, a collaboration among NWS, the US Life Saving Association, and Sea Grant. Developed in 2013, the project taught beach lifeguards to collect real-time beach hazard data and pass the data to NWS during peak months. NWS uses the data to enhance rip current forecasting. Currently, 25 beaches in nine states participate in the program. 

Representatives from Minnesota Sea Grant, Delaware Sea Grant, North Carolina Sea Grant, South Carolina Sea Grant, and Virginia Sea Grant were in attendance. Sea Grant programs also complete an extensive amount of work in their local communities related to coastal hazard research and awareness. Delaware Sea Grant has coordinated a series of meetings for the Sea Grant Network to improve communication and awareness of the importance of surf zone injuries among beach patrols and local weather forecasting officers. Minnesota Sea Grant instituted rip current educational and outreach programs at Lake Superior and developed beach warning systems, training for lifeguards, and local events dedicated to water safety.  In addition to rip currents, wave run-up was also examined. Wave run-up occurs when a wave breaks, propelling the water onto the beach as a turbulent swash. This disturbance leads to a significant increase in water elevation and contributes to structural damage and beach erosion. Attendees also participated in a field exercise and learned how to survey for wave run-up points, information that can be implemented in their communities to prepare for wave run-up during storms.

Overall, the workshop brought many professionals together and highlighted the need for validation of current forecasting models for rip currents and wave run-up, communication with weather forecasters and local lifeguards, improved messaging efforts to beachgoers about rip currents and coastal hazards, harnessing existing and new partnerships, and others.

Learn More:

Rip Current Pilot Project

Spotlight on South Carolina Sea Grant Extension Specialist Michael Slattery

Spotlight on North Carolina Sea Grant Extension Specialist Spencer Rogers

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