Methods for decreasing rip current drownings

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Monday, 5 January 2015: 4:15 PM
221A-C (Phoenix Convention Center - West and North Buildings)
Charles H. Paxton, NOAA/NWS, Ruskin, FL

This research explores weather and ocean conditions associated with rip current drownings. A rip current is a near shore circulation in which breaking waves run up onto the beach then retreat rapidly in deeper channels back toward the sea. Rip currents pose a significant threat to beachgoers, particularly tourists, and can pull even the strongest swimmers out to sea. The primary factors attributed to rip current formation are variations in the local beach bathymetry and longshore waves of varying height. In the United States during 2010, rip currents were responsible for 64 deaths. This death toll was greater than those associated with lightning, tornadoes, hurricanes and the cold combined during that year. The methodology followed for this study included a review of demographics from over 500 fatal rip current drowning reports along the coasts of the contiguous United States. Then for each of those reports, an analysis of associated ocean and weather patterns was conducted to understand the evolution of these drowning events with respect to the trends of wave height, wave period, tidal fluctuation, pressure patterns, and resulting surface wind fields. The study indicates that tourists are the usual victims and rescuers often become the victims. Recommendations for reducing the number of rip current drownings fall in two areas: information from the forecast offices, and information at the beaches. Within a forecast office, simple communication methodologies can provide a greater public awareness of rip current dangers. When an incident occurs, those within a forecast office should provide a report with important details to help understand factors associated with the drowning. At the beaches, signage and tools can help beachgoers reduce the potential for drowning.