Hoping to better predict deadly rip currents, the
National Weather Service has enlisted California beach
lifeguards to watch and record rip current patterns.
Using Moonlight State Beach in Encinitas as a test lab,
NWS has collected data from lifeguards to update an
existing rip current model predictor. The next step is to
repeat the program and collect more data farther north in
Manhattan Beach. In time, researchers hope to expand to
beaches around the country, including the Great Lakes in
?The key to this is to have lifeguards on the
beach and [making] these observations,? said
Stephan Smith, chief of the decision assistance branch for
the NWS? Meteorological Development Lab in Silver
Spring, Md. ?They?re the eyes and ears for
this whole thing.?
Rip currents are channeled currents that flow away from
the shore and are responsible for nearly 80 percent of
lifeguard beach rescues. These swift-flowing belts of water
are the No. 1 cause of drowning at ocean beaches, and can
be so strong that even expert swimmers can be swept out to
Rip currents are caused by deep ocean swells, storms,
underwater topography, water level and ocean waves. Using
lifeguard observations of wave height, direction, timing
and rip current strength, Smith hopes to gain a better
indication of rip-current risk, with an approximate lead
time of one to two hours.
?From a scientific viewpoint we?re just
trying to understand the currents and compile more
quantitative data,? said Dr. C-S Wu, senior
physical scientist at NWS. ?If we can combine rip
currents with our wave forecasting capability, then we can
give beach-goers the appropriate warnings.?