Researchers study rip currents off North Carolina beaches

Published: Jul. 23, 2014 at 10:45 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 27, 2014 at 10:25 PM EDT
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These data-logging drifters are used to collect information about rip currents, such as the...
These data-logging drifters are used to collect information about rip currents, such as the timing and location. (Source:WECT)
It was a beautiful morning on Carolina Beach for researchers to study rip currents.
It was a beautiful morning on Carolina Beach for researchers to study rip currents.

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - In response to the number of rip current deaths in North Carolina, researchers are taking a closer look at the state's beaches.

62 people have died from rip currents off beaches in North Carolina since 1999 with seven of those fatalities just last year. Researchers have studied how they work in other parts of the world, but now, for the first time, a group of researchers is taking a closer look at rip currents off North Carolina beaches.

For twelve year old Maritoni Songco, rip currents are scary. As a Texas native visiting Carolina Beach, she says she isn't familiar with rip currents and wouldn't know what to do if she found herself in one. On the other hand, Maritoni's friend Darien Barrett knows all too well what a rip feels like.

Darien said, "I didn't know what a rip current was and I tried to swim against it, but obviously it kept pulling me out." Rip current victim Darien luckily escaped the ocean's grip.

However, more than 100 people drown every year in the United States from getting caught in rip currents. They've been studied for decades on the west coast and in Australia, but never before along the east coast -- until now.

That's where Dr. Rip comes in. Australian coastal geomorphologist, Rob Brander was given the nickname Dr. Rip because of his extensive research with beach and surf zones internationally for more than twenty years.

Brander said, "If you're going to go to the beach, forget about the sharks. The number one hazard on North Carolina beaches is rip currents."

Dr. Rip isn't the only one researching rip currents along the east coast this summer. He's working with a large team of researchers based in North Carolina.

The project partners include North Carolina Sea Grant, UNC Wilmington's Center for Marine Science, Wilmington's National Weather Service forecast office, and town lifeguard programs from Carolina Beach, Wrightsville Beach, and Kure Beach.

Cooperating partners include UNC Wilmington's surf club, the Wrightsville Beach Longboard Association, Carolina Beach's Surf School instructor Tony Silvagni, and the Carolina Beach Surf Shop.

The experiment uses devices called data-logging drifters. They track the circulation in and around the rip currents. North Carolina Sea Grant's coastal specialist, Spencer Rogers said, "The two things we want to measure in particular are how far offshore the rip currents will push somebody and if there are circulation cells that we see from the west coast, how long it will take someone to get back to shallower water."

All of the drifters are numbered to keep track of the data. They're weighted at the bottom and made of general plumbing material with foam at the top to help them stay afloat. As far as the data-logging goes, there's a waterproof container at the top of the foam top and a GPS device inside to track information like the location and timing of the rip currents.

Multiple drifters are deployed at once just offshore. They're purposely scattered around the primary rip current and allowed to circulate for multiple cycles. Researchers then retrieve the drifters and the data can then be downloaded at the end of each day for computer analysis.

North Carolina Sea Grant provided a $5,000 grant to build the drifters. The GPS device costs approximately $120, bringing the total cost of each drifter to $250. The research group has a total of 22 data-logging drifters.

As for beach goers, like Maritoni and Darien, Dr. Rip and other researchers say knowing what to do if you ever do get caught in a rip current is most important.

Maritoni said, "I'd try to swim forward, but first I know I should try to get out of it and then hopefully I could come back to shore!"

Darien said, "Don't panic and just swim sideways and try to get to shore."

Panic is something Dr. Rip said is the true killer. He advised, "If you find yourself caught in a rip, just relax! It sounds crazy, but the rip isn't going to kill you. Panic will kill you."

The North Carolina team, based at the Sea Grant office at the UNCW Center for Marine Science, will document and collect data through the end of the summer. They will be on call to deploy the data-logging drifters when rip current conditions are expected.

They plan to use the data to improve the warning products and escape procedures provided to the public. The North Carolina Sea Grant team will also initiate lifeguard training on the existence of rip currents for professional rescue purposes.

If you've ever been caught in a rip current and would like to help be a part of this research project, researches want to hear from you. You can take a brief survey to share your experience.

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