Smartphones Could Play a Hand in Tracking Rip Currents

Jun 05, 2013
Photo by: Connor Warren

The new wave of improving and standardizing reporting of ocean rip current conditions will come through smartphone applications used by beach patrols. Information would be passed on not just between individual patrols, but also through the Stevens Institute of Technology Marine Sciences Department, the National Weather Service, U.S. Coast Guard and possibly first responders and emergency management units.

At a Tuesday afternoon press conference on the entrance to the 18th Street beach in Surf City, Jon Miller, a research assistant professor of marine sciences at Stevens, said the daily data would help pinpoint a more accurate trend of when and where rip currents occur. Year by year comparisons would become available.

“The lifeguards are on the first line of defense,” said Miller. “In the present system, lifeguards might make reports about rip currents by the end of the day, but now they can do it several times a day, as rip currents also can change during the course of the day.”

He said that as surf conditions change during the day, lifeguards move the flags and instruct swimmers to stay within them when they are in the water.

“Because of beach erosion and other conditions from Sandy – and a forecast of a busy hurricane season – there is the possibility of having strong rips this summer,” said Miller. “Hopefully, we can get everybody on track as soon as possible so that we can have safe summers on the beach.”

Walter Drag, senior meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Mount Holly, said rip currents tend to increase during the lower half of the tide cycle. Drag said swimmers get in trouble and become exhausted and risk drowning when they try swimming against the currents.

“You should either try to swim across them or swim with them,” he said. “You should never swim against them, especially if you are not a strong swimmer.”

Drag said that near the start of last summer, five ocean swimmers drowned at the New Jersey coast. The victims were between ages 10 and 24, and daytime temperatures were nine degrees above normal.

“All these deaths occurred without a lifeguard presence,” said Drag. “You have a roughly one in 18 million chance of drowning at a beach patrolled by lifeguards. You say it costs too much to get on the beach, or I can’t swim until the lifeguards go home. Our advice at the National Weather Service is that you may not get another chance if you risk swimming on a beach that is not patrolled by lifeguards.”

Drag said he doubted that there would be sufficient time for the new application to be in place for LBI this season, but hopes it could be implemented in 2014. He said the system is operational in Atlantic City and Wildwood.

“It’s going to depend on whether the beach patrols want to go along with it or not,” said the meteorologist. “I would hope they would.”

Don Myers, longtime director of the Long Beach Township Beach Patrol, said it “looks like a great educational application.”

“It’s good when we can have something that can get information out to the public quickly and make our job easier, and also make it safer to utilize the beaches,” said Myers, who is supervisor of the fourth-largest beach patrol in the nation.

At the end of the press conference, Drag presented a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration honor to Jay Mann, fishing columnist and managing editor of The SandPaper, who for the past 10 years has reported daily sunrise observations of Long Beach Island surf conditions to the Mount Holly office.

“With this Special Service Award, NOAA’s National Weather Service hereby recognizes Jay Mann for his dedication to public service, and for his concern with the well-being of swimmers along the New Jersey coast,” said Drag, reading from the plaque.

Mann noted that hurricanes far at sea often have dangerous effect on surf conditions. “More people die from hurricanes that don’t hit (landfall) than from those that do hit.

“This new application may add a bit of work, but if it saves one life, we’d be ecstatic,” he said.

— Eric Englund

Rip Current Awareness Week
(Video by: Ryan Morrill)
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