Officials explain rip current forecasting and research

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WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH, NC (WWAY) — It’s Rip Current Awareness week. The same week our area is tracking a tropical system.

With the beach season in full swing, officials are hoping to keep more people safe this summer.

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Officials say places like fishing piers, sandbars, and jetties are hot spots where rip currents can form. They say if you get caught in one, they can move faster than a pace of an Olympic swimmer.

“It can be anybody,” Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue Director Dave Baker said. “Rip currents do not discriminate.”

Rip currents are a channel of water flowing away from shore.



“They will take anybody out should you not know how to get out,” Baker said.

Forecaster say rip currents are influenced by wave and wind energy.

“You can see a rip current on a beautiful sunny day or it could be a stormy day,” Sandy LaCorte, National Weather Service Meteorologist, said. “It really just depends on what’s going on in the ocean, whether we have a high pressure system or a tropical storm.”

LaCorte says they categorize rip current risks by low, moderate, or high. She says they speak with local ocean rescue twice a day to produce a more accurate rip current forecast.

“The lifeguards out here see the actual ocean conditions that are going on so we may have a low risk for rip current in the morning, but as conditions change throughout the day you may different flags go up at the beach where they may have increase the risk for the day,” LaCorte said.

Rip currents account for 80% of rescues by lifeguards and two people have already died off our coast this season.

Researches like Spencer Rogers with NC Sea Grant uses a tool called ocean drifters. The product has a GPS attached where it logs the position every second.

“We come back to the office where we analyze the data and see exactly where it went over time and how fast so from that we can tell the circulation around the rip current whether it was ejected offshore or whether it circulated back into shallow water,” Rogers said.

Signs are posted at every beach access. NWS in Wilmington even posted bilingual signs in Fort Fisher Friday.

Official say if you can get caught in a rip current, the best advice is to stay calm.

“Float, relax get your strength, then swim parallel to shore and let the waves push you in,” Baker said.

With Tropical Storm Colin headed toward the Cape Fear, the threat for dangerous rip currents will increase Monday evening. Seas will also increase to 8 to 10 feet Tuesday.