February 28, 2014

Texas Sea Grant Researchers Working to Increase Rip Current Knowledge

As college students from around the country begin to arrive at Texas beaches for spring break, two researchers at Texas A&M University are working to make them — and all beach visitors — safer.

A Texas A&M student explains rip currents to beachgoers

Sarah Trimble is one of three Texas A&M University graduate students who surveyed people on Galveston Island, Port Aransas and Corpus Christi beaches to find out how well informed they were about rip current hazards. (Photo: Christian Brannstrom, Texas A&M University)

With funding from the Texas Sea Grant College Program at Texas A&M, Drs. Chris Houser and Christian Brannstrom, associate professors in the Department of Geography, and three geography students surveyed beachgoers on Galveston Island and in the Corpus Christi/Port Aransas area. They wanted to know two things: Could beach users identify a rip current, and what did they learn from the existing warning signs?

The ultimate goal of the project is to determine if and how the warning signs can be improved. Developed in 2004 through a partnership between NOAA, the United States Lifesaving Association and the National Sea Grant Program, the signs were designed primarily to increase awareness of rip currents and instruct people how to escape if they are caught in one.

Nationwide, more than 100 people a year are killed at surf beaches by rip currents. Rips don’t pull people under the water, they pull them away from shore. They are most dangerous for weak or non-swimmers, but the strongest ones can sweep even the best swimmers offshore.

In Texas, they are most common near man-made objects like piers and groins, but can occur on any beach with breaking waves. Unfortunately, to the uninitiated, rip channels can appear to be a safer choice than swimming near breaking surf.

The rip current in this photo is on the left side of the groin. From the beach, this can look like the safest area because there is no heavy, breaking surf. But there are no waves coming in because the rip current is pulling the water — and would pull anyone swimming in it — rapidly away from shore

The rip current in this photo is on the left side of the groin. From the beach, this can look like the safest area because there is no heavy, breaking surf. But there are no waves coming in because the rip current is pulling the water — and would pull anyone swimming in it — rapidly away from shore. (Photo: Chris Houser, Texas A&M University/Texas Sea Grant)

“Don’t assume that the breaking waves are more dangerous,” Houser cautioned. “One of the key results of this study is that the rip flow may look the safest. It looks the calmest because it’s where the water is flat and moving offshore and waves are not breaking.”

When presented with photos showing a range of surf conditions and asked to point to the greatest hazard, only 13 percent of the surveyed beachgoers chose both the photo with the most dangerous conditions and the location of the rip current. Many others selected the right photo, which showed the heaviest surf, but incorrectly pointed to the breaking waves as the location of the rip. The researchers are still analyzing the responses about the warning signs, but expect to submit their findings for publication by this summer.

In December, Houser met with members of the Galveston Park Board, who manage the beaches and the beach patrol there, to share the results from the first part of the study; he has been invited back this year when the data analysis is complete to provide information that can help Galveston improve their warning sign.

This summer, Houser and Brannstrom will be traveling to Costa Rica with a group of Texas A&M undergraduate students on a study abroad trip to conduct a similar rip current survey on the beaches there in conjunction with the country’s National Commission of Emergencies. Costa Rica has a severe rip current problem, and it also has what Houser called one of the best databases in the world on rip current drownings. Texas A&M will be taking a lead role in analyzing that data.

A version of this sign, developed for a rip current awareness campaign, appears on many U.S. beaches. It was designed to educate beachgoers about the existence of rip currents and how to escape them. (Photo: Michigan Sea Grant)

A version of this sign, developed for a rip current awareness campaign, appears on many U.S. beaches. It was designed to educate beachgoers about the existence of rip currents and how to escape them. (Photo: Michigan Sea Grant)

In the meantime, the two researchers offered additional advice to stay safe on the beaches during spring break and beyond.

“The ocean is not a park, and you have to be aware of your own limits and the very strong processes that you sometimes can’t see — or don’t know how to see,” Brannstrom said, adding that consumption of alcohol can greatly increase the risks.

“Go where there are lifeguards, and during times when lifeguards are on duty. Heed the warning flags — if it’s a red flag, don’t go in the water,” Houser advised. “Pay attention to the hazard signs, and don’t swim where it says not to swim. But also don’t assume that because you don’t see something obvious that there’s no danger there.”

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