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Tropical storms mean dangerous rip currents for region

Wednesday - 8/27/2014, 1:44pm  ET

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Some currents can be deadly, even for experienced swimmers. (WJLA)

WASHINGTON -- We definitely have been lucky in the tropical storm department for most of this year along the eastern seaboard (with the exception of Hurricane Arthur in early July which did lead to some flooding).

Hurricane Cristobal, which is churning just about 300 miles off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, will continue to move north-northeast avoiding the east coast of the United States."

The possible path of Hurricane Cristobal. (National Weather Service)

All along the eastern seaboard, from Florida up to Boston, a moderate to high risk for rip currents is being forecast. It's so frequent that for the last week in August many beachgoers are forbidden to enter the water. The rip current threat is so high that it would be life-threatening to anyone entering the surf.

Rip currents do not discriminate along our areas beaches either, so how can you identify them and keep you and your family safe? These currents can occur along any beach that features breaking waves (including the Great Lakes). They are unfortunately subject to formation at any time during the day and more likely right before low tide. The swells generated by Hurricane Cristobal and brisk onshore flow are creating the environment for a higher risk of rip currents.

Just Wednesday, an 18-year-old man drowned in Ocean City.

According to the U.S. Lifesaving Association statistics, rip currents cause more than 100 drownings each year and 80 percent of all rescues on surf beaches nationwide are rip current related. Now, rip current speeds can vary and although rip currents at any speed are particularly dangerous for weak or non-swimmers, some have even been measured as fast as 8 feet per second. That's faster than an Olympic swimmer! Generally though, rip current speeds are typically 1 or 2 feet per second.

So how do these things form and why? Well, first, what is a rip current? It can be summed up as a fast-moving narrow section of water that travels in the offshore direction. In some cases the width of the rip current can extend hundreds of yards.

Examples of rip currents. (National Weather Service)

Now how do these rip currents form? As waves near the shore head from deep to shallow water, they break. As that happens, they generate currents that flow in both away from the coast and along the shore. Currents that flow away from the coast are called rip currents.

The flow of rip currents. (National Weather Service)

Although all beaches are susceptible to rip currents, shoreline shape, jetties location, sandbars, groins and piers and the design of the near-shore bottom or bathymetry can all influence them. Therefore, the topography of some beaches makes them more prone to rip currents.

So how to you identify rip currents? Look for one or more of these clues:

  • Channel of churning, choppy water
  • Notable difference in water color
  • Line of foam, seaweed or debris moving steadily seaward
  • Breaking in the incoming wave pattern

Weak, slow rip currents are little to no threat to experienced swimmer. However, that can all change with the size or intensity of the next wave. A strong wave can causes pulses in the strength of a rip current. Always be aware, though, most of the time, rip currents aren't easily identifiable.

Safety tip: Polarized sunglasses make it easier to see rip currents So, how do you survive rip currents?

First thing first: If you find yourself caught in a rip current, remain calm. A rip current is a horizontal current. They don't pull people underwater; they pull people away from shore. Most deaths associated with rip currents happen when are unable to keep themselves afloat because they can't swim to shore.

So here are some tips: Once you calm yourself, you can think more clearly. Remaining calm is number one.

Secondly, don't fight the current. Swim out of the current parallel to the beach/shoreline. When you feel you're out of the current, swim back toward the shore. If you're unable to swim out of the rip current, float or calmly tread water until you're no longer being pulled. Don't exert any extra energy.

Now, if these tips don't work, draw attention to yourself. Face the shore, wave your arms and yell for help.

What to do if caught in a rip current. (National Weather Service)

Contact a lifeguard or 911 if needed. Many people drown while trying to save someone else from a rip current. The best thing you can do it throw the victim something that floats and yell instructions on how to escape.

So enjoy the beach for the rest of this summer but remember that rip currents can happen along any beach with breaking waves. Keep you and your family safe and take the warning seriously.

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