Rip Currents

Every year dozens of individuals lose their lives fighting rip currents. They occur often, all over the world, and can be fatal.

Red dots show fatalities from rip currents in 2018 (United States)

If you are unfamiliar, rip currents are narrow currents in the ocean extending from the shoreline to outside of the surf zone. Rip currents, also known as rips, can extend up to 2,500 ft from shore to ocean and be up to 30 feet wide. They move quite quickly, most being 5 miles per hour or faster. Rips are often mistakenly referred to as riptides or undertow. Tides, which are controlled by the moon’s gravitational pull, are the rising and falling of the ocean’s water level. High tide and low tide change gradually and are predictable every day. The undertow is a current of water that pulls you down to the ocean floor, while rip currents pull you out to sea at the surface.

Rip currents occur all around the world in various bodies of water, oceans, seas, and even lakes. If there are waves in the water, there can be rip currents. Rip currents most often occur when the receding flow (crashed waves flowing back to sea) becomes condensed in a specific spot at a specific time. Many factors can cause a condensed receding flow, but it typically has to do with a break or gap in the sandbar (“long, narrow hills of accumulated sand along the outer part of shore”). When these breaks in sandbars form, all the water receding back to sea is pulled through the gap.

Unlike tides, rip currents are extremely unpredictable. It is nearly impossible to know when a sandbar will expose a gap, and when it does, it cannot be predicted how the rip current will behave. Rip pulses are quick and sudden increases in the speed of a rip current, lasting anywhere from 30 to 60 seconds. When periods of abnormally larger waves crash, the water level is elevated and can cause swimmers to lose their footing and get swept out to sea. Rip pulses can cause rip currents to almost double in speed.

The most common rip currents are known as channelized rip currents. These are the rip currents formed by breaks in the sandbar. They are usually quite visible from the shoreline. The easiest way to spot one is to look out for a channel of darker water in the whitewash. It may look relatively calm, however, there are small, choppy ripples on the surface where this gap is. Channelized rip currents can last from a couple of days to several months. Long-term channelized rips can cause erosion to the shoreline.

When stuck in a rip current, it is important to remain calm. The majority of fatalities from rip currents are caused by the victim frantically trying to fight it. This leads to water entering the lungs, resulting in drowning. It may be instinctive to try to swim back to shore, however, even the strongest swimmers will find this extremely difficult. Instead, it is recommended to swim parallel to the shore rather than perpendicular. Swimming parallel to the shore puts the swimmer out of the rip current, where they can then swim back to shore. The ocean is not always fun and games. Be on the lookout for rip currents, and never think getting caught in one can never happen.


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