Spring Break Beach Safety: How rip currents are formed and how to escape them

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MOBILE, Ala. (WKRG) — This week is Rip Current Awareness Week. Rip currents have accounted for more fatalities in the last 18 years than tornadoes, lightning, flooding, and tropical systems combined. As spring break is upon us, beach safety is important to follow.

“The main hazards are mainly high surf and rip currents are our number one killer down here,” Brandon Black said.

Meteorologist Colleen Peterson spoke with Brandon Black, meteorologist at The National Weather Service, to get more information on how rip currents are formed. With most of our beaches facing due south, there is a certain wind and wave set-up that is optimal for dangerous rip currents.

“It has to do with how the beach faces and the wind direction and the wave direction,” Black said. “S-SE wind and S-SE wave action you could build up those rip currents and those rip currents are formed in between those sand bars typically.”

 That is where a channel forms and pulls out to sea creating a rip current. There are ways to visually spot a rip current. 

“If you watch the bubbles carefully you can see locations where they extend well off the beach, you’ll see these areas where it’s very dirty murky water where it is being extended out into the ocean,” Black said.

Typically, rip currents can extend 100 yards or more offshore, so if caught in one, do not fight the current! Rip currents are on average less than 50 yards in width so when you swim parallel you will exit the drift. 

“Try and float lay on your back don’t fight the rip and try to wave to a lifeguard. Once it pulls you swim parallel to the beach, either left or right,” Black explained. “You can then let the waves pull you back towards the beach and hopefully by that point a lifeguard will come get you.”

There are different flags flying to symbolize the rip current risk. Double red flags means nobody should be in the water and the surf and rip current risk is too dangerous.

“When its safe to go in the water being green. Yellow means to use caution. Red obviously means you probably shouldn’t be in the water,” Black said.

The National Weather Service has a new tool online that is an interactive map that will let you click on beaches across the nation and will give you the forecast for the next seven days. Head to weather.gov/beach to see the rip current risk, wave height, water temperature, and more for any beach listed. 

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