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Rip Currents

From Audio: Rip Currents, Rising Tides, and Meteotsunamis… Oh My!

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Weather Geeks
Duration: 08:19
You've probably learned about how to break free of a riptide by swimming parallel to the beach, eventually getting out of the pull of the rip. Except riptides are not tides at all, but currents under the surface of the ocean. Relabeling them to Rip Currents more accurately describes what they are.
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You've probably learned about how to break free of a riptide by swimming parallel to the beach, eventually getting out of the pull of the rip. Except riptides are not tides at all, but currents under the surface of the ocean. Relabeling them to Rip Currents more accurately describes how they function and the dangers they pose.
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on end across the beach. And so, you know, I think it's important to call them what they are in terms of rip currents. Um and you know in terms of of of trying to provide guidance. You know, one of the one of the the reasons that we focus so much on them is that there are huge public safety risk. I think a lot of people don't realize they're the number one uh public safety risk at the beach. And that we estimate there's up to maybe 100 drownings per year in the U. S. Do to rip. So um that's why we're really focusing on them both on the science side and also communication. Now let's geek out a little bit on the science what causes the rip current. So rips are caused by breaking waves. And so any water body where you have breaking waves, you can have a rip current. And really what's driving rips is variations and how waves are breaking along shore. And probably one of the the textbook examples that I like to give is if you go to the beach kind of an open sandy beach and you have a sandbar near shore. And that sandbar isn't usually uniforms. There might be breaks in the bar or channels in the bar where you have deeper water. And so you get these cases where you have shallower water over the bar, deeper water and the channel, shallower water over the bar and waves break, moreover shallower water than deep water. And so in those areas where you have an increase in wave breaking, you get something called set up, which is uh an average increase in water level caused by breaking waves. And that setup is directly related to the height of breaking waves. And so where you have more waves breaking, you have higher water levels higher set up. And and then where you don't have waves breaking, like in a channel, you have lower water level, lower setup and water wants to flow downhill. And so it flows from those regions of high set up to low set up. And that really is what drives rip current circulation. Um you don't need to have a sandbar. Other things can cause those variations. You know, structures, groins, jetties, piers are notorious for being hazardous locations for rips. And then sometimes you can even just have, you know, because of the wave field, how waves are approaching the coastline. You can have variations with how they're breaking along shore and that can drive rips as well. So, so there are a number of different ways they can, they can be formed. But in all cases it's really that breaking waves, the variability in breaking away by it. That's important. And some of your your research or perhaps even your graduate work may be devolved from that work is involved in predicting these. So, as a meteorologist at the weather geeks listener base, we certainly know about weather prediction. Uh we're basically solving these sort of very complex equations that describe fluid and how they change in time. What's involved in predicting rip currents. So rip currents turned out to be quite hard to predict, um in part because of how the the shape of the bottom changes. Um it's hard to know what that looks like at any given time. Um So the way that we've approached different prediction is using statistics. And so we use uh numerical models to predict the the waves and the water level. So important to rip current formation are, how big, how high are the waves? How large are the waves, what direction they're coming from? And then what is your water level? Because if you're at high tide or low tide makes a difference. If you're at low tide, you have waves breaking over the bar driving that circulation that I mentioned before at high tide, you might have no waves breaking over the bar. They're breaking straight on shore and you can turn off circulation depending on how high the water is. And so we use computer models to predict those features and then correlate the output from those models to rip current observations. To be able to say, hey, what conditions are leading most likely to drive hazardous rip currents at any given point in time. And, and I think one of the interesting ways that we've gone about this, and really out of necessity is using lifeguards to provide us with observations. Because it's really hard as you can probably imagine, really hard to to observe rip currents in the surf zone with in situ instruments, right? You can put stuff in the surf zone, it's not going to last that long. Um and so the way we've overcome this up till now anyway is to have lifeguards help us with visual observations, because they're probably the best people in the world to tell you if there are rip currents and how strong they are. And then we've relied heavily on their observations to to create our initial model. And also now, as we're validating it and calibrating it for operations. But how can, like someone like me, how do I identify a rip current? What am I looking for? That's a great question. That's that's that can be a challenge. And it's something that we've stressed more of here at no uh with some of our messaging because um you know, we've we've worked on, what do you do if you get caught in a rip quite a bit right, or break the grip of the rip program, which was around since like 2000 and four has focused on that and that messaging, we've done some social science suggests that that messaging is working pretty well, but we still have tons of drownings, so it's like, okay, well, what we really need to focus on is not having people get in those hazardous situations in the first place, and part of doing that is helping people better identify if they see rips and what they look like. And so, you know the best way to do that. I always tell people you need to get away from the water's edge. You need to be up at a high location, ideally like if you get up on a sand sand dune, the kind of the walk over the sand dunes or up on a boardwalk or kind of just take your distance. Much easier to identify and what you want to look for first is is changes in the way waves are breaking and really gaps in the lines of breaking waves. So that will indicate where you have deeper water usually. And that could be a rip. And then other features might be things like where you see foam being transported offshore or sediment or sand in the water or debris, you might notice that being kind of pulled away from shore. And, and those are kind of classical ways to potentially I'd rip currents. And speaking of the break, the grip of the rip that you mentioned, let's say. And unfortunately this does happen, someone is caught in one. What are, what do you recommend or teach in terms of breaking the group? Well, the first thing we say is to stay calm and you know, because what happens I think in most cases is that people start to panic because it's a disconcerting thing, right? You're in, you're feeling yourself pulled away from shore and you don't know what to do. Maybe or even if you know what to do, We have lots of examples where people know what they're supposed to do and they still start panic. So the first thing we do is stay calm and if there's someone on shore you can wave call for help and and just float because rip currents won't pull you under the water. A lot of people that's a misconception, people think I'm going to get sucked up underwater and really it's just gonna pull you away from shore. So the first thing I want to stay calm and float if you are a good swimmer, then we say swim parallel to the shore or swim, you know, along the beach until you're out of the rip current and then swim back to shore at an angle so that you're not going back into the current. Um And and and if if you if you can't do that, the best thing to do is just float. In some cases, this is some more recent scientific research shows that some amount of rips actually tend to recirculate. So there's a chance if you just float, it might bring you back to shore. Um And so if you aren't a good swimmer float, maybe you get back to shore that way. Or if there's someone on the beach that gives them time to come rescue you or call 911 or or or something like that. One of the most exciting projects that's going on at the Weather channel right now is something called immersive Mixed reality, I am are, and if you don't know what it is, that's one of the reasons we're doing this podcast today, because you probably have seen it if you watch the weather channel. So let's just start at the beginning. Where did the decision come from to go in the I. M. R. Direction and why? Yeah, so it really started, you know, well, first of all, uh as a weather producer, been a weather producer for almost 20 years, um, dating myself a little bit there. But uh, you know, growing up in and telling whether stories, we we had these weather graphics applications that allowed us to put graphics together um that present them to the, to the audience um in the background. I've always watched these video games and seeing the incredible power of these video
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