Heading to a North Carolina beach? New tool helps predict rip current risk

·4 min read

Summer is around the corner, and a new tool can help make your visits to North Carolina beaches safer.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s new forecast model can predict the hourly risk of rip currents on beaches in the United States, including along the North Carolina coast, up to six days in advance, the agency said in an April news release.

“For the first time, NOAA is launching a national rip current forecast model, aimed at saving lives of beach-goers around the country,” the release says.

Rip currents are “powerful, narrow channels of fast-moving water,” NOAA says. They can move up to eight feet per second, which is faster than an Olympic swimmer.

How the model works

The model — created by NOAA’s National Ocean Service and National Weather Service — uses “wave and water level information” from the weather service’s Nearshore Wave Prediction System.

It’s able to predict the likelihood of “seaward currents” on a scale of 0% to 100%.

An experimental forecast map can be found here and the “full rip current model output” can be viewed here.

Users can zoom in on the model and click on the area for which they’re interested in seeing the forecast. Clicking “rip current time series” will then show the probability of a rip current occurring for the next six days.

The model currently covers most of the East Coast, most of the Gulf Coast and parts of California, Hawaii, Guam and Puerto Rico. But NOAA says “additional coastline coverage will be expanded in the future.”

Rip currents in North Carolina

Seven surf-zone fatalities were reported in North Carolina in 2020, according to the National Weather Service. Of those, four were related to rip currents.

Two rip current deaths were reported on Emerald Island, one each was reported at Kitty Hawk and Ocracoke Island on the state’s Outer Banks and one was reported on Topsail Beach.

The number of fatalities reported in 2020 was lower than in past years.

In 2019, the state reported 17 fatalities, 10 of which were related to rip currents, and in 2018 the state reported 16 fatalities, nine of which were related to rip currents, the weather service says.

Nationally, lifeguards rescue tens of thousands of people from rip currents each year, NOAA says, but there are roughly 100 deaths blamed on rip currents annually.

Prior to the new model, NOAA says forecasters were “manually predicting rip currents on a large section of the ocean twice a day and only a day or two into the future.”

But Gregory Dusek, a NOAA scientist who developed the model, says predicting rip currents earlier “has potential to substantially increase awareness and reduce drownings.”

“Safety for beach-goers and boaters is taking a major leap forward with the launch of this new NOAA model,” Nicole LeBoeuf, acting director of NOAA’s National Ocean Service, said in the release. “Extending forecasting capabilities for dangerous rip currents out to six days provides forecasters and local authorities greater time to inform residents about the presence of this deadly beach hazard, thereby saving lives and protecting communities.”

How to stay safe in the water this summer

To avoid getting caught in a rip current, beachgoers should check water conditions before getting in.

“Don’t assume! Great weather for the beach does not always mean it’s safe to swim or even play in the shallows,” the NWS says. “Rip currents often form on calm, sunny days.”

If you do get caught in a rip current, stay calm. NOAA says it will not pull you underwater, just away from the shore.

Don’t try to swim against the current, as it will just “tire you out,” NOAA says. Instead, float and call and wave for help. To get out of a rip current, swim parallel to the shore then “follow breaking waves back to shore at an angle.”

“Always let a lifeguard make a rip current rescue, because often, the people that try to make rescues themselves end up being the ones who drown. Instead, the best way to help is to throw them something that floats and immediately get a lifeguard for help,” NOAA says.