J9.5 Breaking the Grip of the Rip: Communicating the Risk of Deadly Rip Currents to the Public

Monday, 13 January 2020: 2:45 PM
153C (Boston Convention and Exhibition Center)
Morgan Barry, NWSFO, Mobile, AL; and C. Lindsey and J. Beaman

Rip currents are a common coastal hazard which must be accurately forecast and effectively communicated by National Weather Service (NWS) offices. Even though, on average, rip currents are not among the top three leading causes of weather-related deaths nationally, this phenomenon has been the number one weather-related killer for the counties served by the NWS Mobile/Pensacola office. In fact, the number of rip current fatalities are more than double all of the other weather related fatalities in those counties combined. Past data have shown that a vast majority of rip current related deaths are beachgoers who reside in areas away from the coast. These tourists are rarely, if ever, exposed to the term “rip current” or safety actions to take if caught in a rip current. Because rip currents can and often do occur on clear and sunny days, reaching and educating these beachgoers using traditional forecast products can be challenging for many NWS Offices along the Gulf Coast.

For years, NWS Mobile/Pensacola has utilized a daily checklist accounting for elements such as wind waves, wind wave persistence, swell properties, and tidal effects for each of the beaches along the northern Gulf Coast. In addition, local beach partners submit daily observations to allow forecasters to better assess current beach conditions and incorporate those observations into the checklist. The rip current checklist has shown skill in delineating the high risk days from the low and moderate risk days. In the near future, the office plans to assess a new component of the NWPS wave prediction model to see if there is any additional predictive support for identifying the high risk days.

In an effort to reach more people in a timelier manner and in coordination with local partners, NWS Mobile/Pensacola transitioned to a 4-day rip current outlook in 2018. This extended forecast allows for better communication of the rip current risk to tourists and allows beach partners to plan ahead and have assets in place ahead of the high risk days. Furthermore, several NWS Mobile/Pensacola rip current safety and forecast tweets have reached over one million people each with the help of inland NWS offices and broadcast meteorologists across the country. Effectively communicating the dangers of rip currents through social media allows more people to become educated on the proper actions to take if caught in a rip current. This could potentially save a life.

This presentation will highlight how the NWS Mobile/Pensacola office forecasts, educates, and effectively communicates rip current hazards to the public. By presenting some of the successes of the rip current checklist and education, we hope it will stimulate further ideas on how to educate tourists on the dangers of rip currents.

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