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🚩 Carolinas Rip Current Awareness 🚩

 

Birds eye view of Oak Island, NC         Rip current in the Outer Banks         Public access flag and red beach flag at Surf City, NC

 

Rip currents are the deadliest and most common hazard people face at the beaches of North and South Carolina, as well as along most of the coastlines of the world. The United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) estimates rip currents are responsible for about 100 drownings each year in the United States and over 80% of lifeguard rescues. Between 2000 and 2022, there were 179 rip current drownings (~8 per year) in North and South Carolina. This number far exceeds any other weather-related fatalities during that time frame, making rip currents the #1 weather related killer in the coastal Carolinas. With millions of people visiting the beaches of North and South Carolina each year, it is very important rip current awareness and education continues to be promoted to help keep the public safe.

 

Bar graph showing fatalities by weather type across the coastal Carolinas for 2000-2022

Fatalities by weather type across all NC & SC counties served by coastal Carolinas NWS forecast offices (CHS, ILM, MHX, AKQ)

Note: These totals include fatalities from counties that are not along the immediate coastline

 

 

What Are Rip Currents?

 

Rip currents are strong, channelized currents of water that flow back into the ocean from the shoreline. They typically form at breaks in the sandbars, and near structures such as jetties and piers. Rip currents are commonly found at any beach where there are breaking waves, including Great Lakes beaches.

  • Rip currents act as treadmills of the ocean, with speeds averaging 1 to 2 feet per second, but they have been measured as fast as 8 feet per second - faster than an Olympic swimmer!
  • Rip currents do not pull people under the water - they pull people away from shore.
  • The length and width of rip currents can vary dramatically.

Rip currents are dangerous and life-threatening for several reasons:

  • They pull people away from shore into deeper waters.
  • They are often hard to identify in the surf and not everyone knows about the danger of rip currents.
  • Sometimes the worst rip current events occur with the best weather. Nice and sunny weather does not mean the ocean is safe.
  • People try to swim against rip currents versus swimming out of them.

How Do Rip Currents Form?

 

Rip currents form as incoming waves push water up the slope of the beach. To remain in balance, excess water building in the surf zone seeks the path of least resistance as a rip current through the surf zone. 

  • Rip current formation is more favorable with incoming wave direction perpendicular to shore, larger wave heights, and longer wave periods. However, rip currents can still form in surf of only 1 to 2 feet.
  • Rip currents are most common within a few hours of low tide, but can still form during all hours of the day.

 

Image annotated with incoming waves directly onshore on either side of a rip current going out

 

How To Spot a Rip Current

 

Spotting a rip current can be tricky, especially at eye level standing on the beach. It is easier to spot rip currents from an elevated position overlooking the beach (e.g., parking lot, beach access, or headland). Watch the water for several minutes as ocean conditions, including rip current characteristics, can change. You can also ask a lifeguard if there any rip currents in the area.

Look for these clues when trying to spot a rip current:

  • ​A narrow gap of darker, seemingly calmer, water between areas of breaking waves and whitewater
  • A channel of churning, choppy water
  • A difference in water color
  • A line of foam, seaweed, or debris moving seaward
  • Some types of rips, such as flash rips, can appear as narrow sections of turbulent whitewater heading away from the beach

Rip current image from Kill Devil Hills, NC      Rip current at Surf City, NC

 

Check out the video above, taken by an NWS employee, on spotting a rip current while in the water (courtesy of NWS Morehead City)

 

Types of Rip Currents

 

There are several different types of rip currents, characterized by how and where they develop along with how long they persist. Below are the rip current types typically found in our area:

  • Channelized - This is the most common rip current type in the Carolinas. Channelized rip currents form due to the presence of irregular patterns of nearshore beach characteristics, such as shape of sandbars. The rips occupy deeper channels between the sandbars and they can stay in place for hours to as much as several months. As the shape of the beach changes, especially during and after strong storms, the location and strength of these rip currents will also change.
  • Boundary - Boundary rip currents form against rigid structures in the surf zone. The structures can be either natural (such as headlands and rock outcrops) or man-made (such as groins, jetties, and piers). These rip currents move little and can persist for months or years. 
  • Flash - Flash rips are usually of short duration - lasting no more than 15 or 30 minutes. However they can be quite dangerous as they form suddenly, can occur over a large and varying area, and are unpredictable.

 

Myths & Misconceptions

 

  • Rip currents are often incorrectly referred to as rip tides. Rip currents are not tides, so this term can cause confusion. Strong currents often occur in tidal inlets, mouths of estuaries and harbor openings associated with incoming and outgoing tides. However. these are best referred to as tidal currents rather than rip tides.
  • Rip currents and undertows are different phenomenon. An undertow is an offshore movement of water located close to the sea floor that moves water out from the shoreline. These types of currents are often found in area with very steep beaches.

 

Rip current overview graphic with basic information and how to spot a rip

It is not always obvious if you are caught in a rip current. One sign you may be in a rip - as you try to swim towards shore you are not making any progress and are becoming tired. With stronger rips, you may feel that you are being pulled away from the beach. Know Your Options if you are caught in a rip current.

 

Rip currents Know Your Options infographic

 

If you are caught in a rip current:

  • Try to remain calm to conserve energy.
  • Do not fight the current. Think of a rip current like a treadmill you can't turn off. You want to step to the side of it.
  • Swim across the current in a direction parallel to/following the shoreline.
  • Once out of the current, swim back towards shore.
  • Rip currents typically weaken beyond where the waves are breaking - when the current weakens, swim down the beach some before heading back to shore.
  • If you can't escape the current, try to float or calmly tread water.
  • If at any time you feel you will be unable to reach shore, draw attention to yourself: face the shore, wave your arms and yell for help.

Rip current survivor story of 18 year old male in Nags Head, NC

 

Rip Current Rescue - Drone Footage

 

Below is a drone video taken by Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue of three people caught in a rip current and subsequently rescued by a lifeguard. Discoloration of the water can be seen showing the location of the rip current. Three people are being moved away from shore by the current, attempt to swim against the current without luck, and begin to tread water to stay afloat. A lifeguard enters the water towards the end of the video and has the swimmers grab a flotation device before moving them sideways out of the current in order to swim back to shore.

 

The Bystander Problem

 

Too often, those that get into trouble in rip currents are bystanders who drown attempting to help someone caught in a rip. Roughly 27% of rip current drownings in the Carolinas (since 2011) were bystanders. Know Your Options if you see someone in trouble in the water:

  • Do not put yourself at risk.
  • Get help from a lifeguard. If a lifeguard is not present, call 9-1-1.
  • Try to direct the victim to swim following the shoreline to escape.
  • If possible, throw the rip current victim something that floats (e.g., a boogie board, a cooler, a pool noodle).
  • Never enter the water to help someone without a flotation device 

Infographic on steps to take to help someone caught in a rip current

The National Weather Service has recorded information on rip current drownings in North and South Carolina since 2000. Insights and statistics from this information is used to improve rip current outreach and develop more targeted messaging.

North and South Carolina rip current fatality statistics (2000-2022):

  • 179 rip current drownings (average deaths a year)
  • 85% of fatalities were male - Males are 5x more likely than females to drown in a rip current in the Carolinas.
  • Hardest hit age groups: 41 to 50 (male) & 31 to 40 (female)
  • Twice as many fatalities occurred in NC versus SC
  • 27% of drownings were bystanders

A coastal hazard with far inland implications...

  • 51% of fatalities were from out-of-state (i.e., non-NC or SC resident)
  • Only 19% of fatalities lived in the coastal Carolinas

The last two statistics show the need to educate not just the beach communities about rip currents, but the public in general regardless of where they live (even if they live in a landlocked state). If someone vacations at the beach, they need to be aware of the danger of rip currents. Check out the map below to see the spread of hometowns across the East Coast, as well as to the west and international.

 

Map of hometowns of NC and SC rip current fatalities 2000-2022

 

Top 10 Hometown States of Carolinas Rip Current Fatalities: 2000-2022

  • North Carolina - 55 (34%)
  • South Carolina - 24 (15%)
  • Virginia - 14 (9%)
  • Maryland - 13 (8%)
  • Ohio - 8 (5%)
  • Kentucky - 6 (4%)
  • Pennsylvania - 6 (4%)
  • New York - 5 (3%)
  • Florida - 4 (2%)

Local Rip Current Photos

 

Rip current next to pier in Nags Head, NC       Rip current at Wrightsville Beach, NC

 

 

Scientists from the UNC Coastal Studies Institute and Kill Devil Hills Ocean Rescue used fluorescent dye to track a rip current in the surf zone. Video taken in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Tropical cyclones produce a wide range of hazards: storm surge, heavy rain & inland flooding, high winds, rough surf, and tornadoes. Nearly 90% of all tropical cyclone related deaths are water related (surge, rain, surf, and marine). Unfortunately the rough surf hazard can easily be overlooked or underestimated, especially with distant cyclones that may be hundreds or thousands of miles away. Long period swells from distant storms can lead to strong rip currents forming along exposed beaches. Large waves from nearby storms can create rough surf and rip currents. Nice weather may be occurring locally, increasing the chance of high beach populations at risk. Therefore it is important to stay aware of the tropics, along with weather and beach forecasts, throughout the hurricane season.

 

Infographic on dangers of rip currents from tropical cyclones

 

It is estimated 6% of fatalities from Atlantic tropical cyclones are surf related, including rip currents and high surf. Between 2000 and 2021, there were 143 surf fatalities caused by Atlantic tropical cyclones in the continental U.S. - 100 of which were due to rip currents. Over half of these fatalities occurred when the tropical cyclone had no impacts at the fatality location other than rough surf and marine conditions (i.e., the storm stayed out to sea or made landfall elsewhere in the Atlantic). 

On a local level, 10% of rip current fatalities in the Carolinas between 2000 and 2022 have been due to swells from tropical cyclones. At Wrightsville Beach, NC, there is a peak in strong rip currents reported in the month of September correlated to the peak in Atlantic hurricane season (based on observations collected from Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue since 2004).

 

Aerial view of rip currents at Wrightsville Beach, NC

Aerial view of rip currents due to swells from distant Hurricane Fiona (over 500 miles away) - September 2022

How many rip currents can you spot? (Hint: look for where dark colored sediment is being pulled out beyond the waves)

 

Hurricane Lorenzo (2019)

 

In 2019, Hurricane Lorenzo was a tropical cyclone in the eastern Atlantic from September 22nd - October 4th. Lorenzo was a powerful major hurricane for days and was the northern most category 5 storm on record in the Atlantic. From September 26 - 30, Lorenzo was a category 2 hurricane or stronger and was either moving right at the U.S. or moving slowly. This generated long period swells that traversed the Atlantic, taking four days for the swells to reach the East Coast. As a result, a deadly rip current outbreak occurred along the U.S. East Coast, despite Hurricane Lorenzo getting no closer than ~2200 nautical miles from the coast. Strong rip currents and hazardous surf conditions were reported up and down the coastline. Eight lives were lost in total, six of which were rip current related, between September 30th and October 3rd. Four of these fatalities occurred in North Carolina. Lorenzo led to the most U.S. surf fatalities from an Atlantic tropical cyclone since Hurricane Gabrielle in 1989.

 

Map of Hurricane Lorenzo's track across the eastern Atlantic

 

 

Know Before You Go! One of the best ways to be prepared for rip currents and other beach hazards is to know what you could be swimming into at the beach.

Carolinas MapCHS Beach Page ILM Beach Page MHX Beach Page AKQ Beach Page

Description of each level of rip current risk

 

Beach Forecast Pages for the Carolinas

 

Southeast Beach Forecast Page: www.weather.gov/beach/southeast

NWS Charleston, SC (beach season March 15 - Oct 31)www.weather.gov/beach/chs

NWS Wilmington, NC (beach season early April - Oct 31): www.weather.gov/beach/ilm

NWS Newport/Morehead City, NC (beach season mid April - Oct 31): www.weather.gov/beach/mhx

NWS Wakefield, VA (beach season May 15 - Oct 1): www.weather.gov/beach/akq

 

Surf Zone Forecast (SRF) Text Product

 

Did you know that NWS coastal offices, including the Great Lakes, issue Surf Zone Forecasts (SRF) during local beach seasons? The primary purpose of this forecast product is to alert partners and public of potential hazards swimmers and beachgoers may encounter at local beaches. The SRF contains the beach forecast for the next two days with some offices including an extended forecast, or outlook, section for a heads up. Hazards in the Surf Zone Forecast include rip current risk, surf heights, UV index, thunderstorm potential and other potential hazards such as longshore currents.

 

Rip Current Probabilistic Model

 

NOAA launched the first national rip current probabilistic forecast model in 2021. This model predicts the probabilities of hazardous rip currents occurring along U.S. beaches using output from the NWS's nearshore wave model on different forecasted wave groups, including wave height and direction, as well as predicted tide levels. Values are calculated from 0-100%, hourly through 6 days. This model is aided and refined by lifeguard reports submitted by our local beach partners. The model is used by NWS coastal offices as a tool to help forecast rip current risk. Note: the output from the model does not correspond to the rip current risk forecasted by NWS offices in the official SRF product, as other factors and known biases are taken into account during the forecast process.

NWPS Rip Current Model Output (click a circle along the coast for a localized time series, or click a box for an area animation): polar.ncep.noaa.gov/nwps/viewer.shtml

Press Release for NOAA's First Rip Current Forecast Modeloceanservice.noaa.gov/news/apr21/rip-current-forecast.html

 

Beach flag color examples and meanings

 

 

Nine Dangers at the Beach Infographic

 

Shorebreak

 

Shorebreak occurs where you have a relatively sharply sloping beach so that incoming waves, rather than breaking gradually as they feel the bottom of the sea floor, break quickly and steeply onshore. The force of shorebreak waves can catch unsuspecting swimmers off guard driving them into the sand, causing neck and back injuries, and in some cases even drowning. Shorebreak is common along the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and the hazard typically increases as wave height increases. You must stay situationally aware at all times and never turn your back on the ocean. Check out the PSA videos below from Dare County, NC on the dangers of shorebreak. 

 

 

 

Lightning

 

If you are on the beach or in the ocean and hear thunder or see lightning, immediately seek shelter in a substantial building (i.e., not under a beach picnic shelter) or a metal topped car. Lightning can strike far away from the thunderstorm and if you can hear thunder or see lightning, you are close enough for lightning to strike you. Lightning strikes the tallest object in the area and if you are standing on the beach you become the tallest object

 

When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors

 

Heat & Sunburn

 

Heat is one of the leading weather-related killers in the United States. Heat can be very taxing on the body and heat-related illnesses,  such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke, can occur within even a short period of exposure. Everyone can be vulnerable to heat, but some more so than others (such as young children, older adults, and pregnant women). Stay safe in the sun when on the beach by using sunscreen, staying hydrated, and taking breaks in the shade.

 

UV safety infographic - Protect the skin you're in

 

Hazardous Swimming Areas

 

In addition to common surf hazards, there are certain areas along the coast that are hazardous to be near in the water. These dangers become amplified during certain weather and wave conditions. Check out the graphics below on various hazardous swimming areas found in the Carolinas. Read more at: www.weather.gov/ilm/beachhazardareas.

 

Hazardous swimming areas Danger of swimming near piers and pilings

 

Danger of swimming near groins and revetments Danger of swimming near swashes and creek drainages

 

Dangers of swimming near jetties and inlets Danger of swimming near submerged objects

 

Tips on Staying Safe while Visiting the Beach

 

  • Swim near a lifeguard. The chances of drowning at a beach with lifeguards are 1 in 19 million.

  • Never swim alone. Always swim with a buddy so that if one swimmer has a problem, the other can provide assistance and call for help.

  • Know how to swim before venturing into the ocean. Swimming in a pool is not the same as swimming at a surf beach with crashing waves, winds, and dangerous currents.

  • Know before you go. Check the local surf forecast before going to the beach.

  • If in doubt, don't go out!

 

Dare County, NC - Love the Beach, Respect the Ocean

 

In an effort to provide beachgoers with information on how to enjoy the Outer Banks' beautiful barrier island beaches safely, Dare County Emergency Management created the "Love the Beach, Respect the Ocean" campaign. This effort has led to numerous safety videos and graphics to inform the public of potential hazards at the beaches. Dare County also offers a text message service, where you can sign up for text alerts on beach conditions for the Outer Banks beaches by texting "OBXBeachConditions" to 77295. For additional information on Love the Beach, Respect the Ocean, visit www.lovethebeachrespecttheocean.com.

 

Text "OBXBeachConditions" to 77295 to receive beach alerts for Outer Banks

 

 

 

Rip Current Safety - ASL Video

 

 

Spanish Infographics

 

Spanish inforgraphic on beach weather safety  Spanish infographic on lightning safety

Ayudando a Otros: Peligros Playeros (Helping Others: Beach Hazards)    Su Lugar Seguro de Corrientes de Resaca (Your Safe Place from Rip Currents)

Know Your Options - Spanish Version

 

Rip Current Safety Webpages

 

 


 

For additional information, reach out to your local National Weather Service Forecast Office:

 

For questions regarding this webpage, contact Victoria Oliva.