Texas Sea Grant researchers want beach visitors to avoid the grip of rip currents

May 24, 2013

By Cindie Powell

Dr. Chris Houser was studying rip current development on a beach in Florida when he noticed something curious: many beachgoers were choosing to set up on the beach behind an active rip current and swimming in the rip channel.

“We started asking, ‘Why did you go here? Why did you put your kids in the rip?’ said Houser, a geography professor at Texas A&M University. The answer was surprising — the beach visitors thought the area of the active rip current was the safer choice because it looked calmer than the breaking surf on either side.

Rip currents kill more than 100 people every year on U.S. surf beaches. They may appear as choppy surf or unusually smooth water between breaking waves. In a study funded by Texas Sea Grant, Houser and a Texas A&M geography colleague, Dr. Christian Brannstrom, are determining what Texas beachgoers know about rip currents, including if they can identify and avoid them. They want to use the information to create signs and other educational materials that better help people spot these dangerous currents.

Following up on an earlier study Houser conducted in Florida, three Texas A&M geography graduate students, Heather Brown, Anna Santos and Sarah Trimble, surveyed visitors to beaches in Galveston and the Port Aransas/Corpus Christi area. Using five photographs of a wide range of surf conditions around the same rock groin, they asked: Which photo shows the most dangerous area? Where in the photo is the rip current?

More than half the beachgoers surveyed correctly chose the photo with a large rip current as the one with the most dangerous conditions; however, echoing Houser’s earlier experiences in Florida, many pointed to the rough surf as the location of the rip. It was a much smaller group — 22 percent in Galveston and 12 percent in the Port Aransas/Corpus Christi area — who were able to accurately pinpoint the rip current.

“There is a group out there that knows their stuff,” Brannstrom said. “They’ve figured out what it’s all about and how to spot a rip.”

The researchers’ next challenge is to find a way to help everyone on the beach be as well-informed as that group. “If they’re always looking at the heavy breaking white waves (as the hazard), then there needs to be information out there that sometimes what you can’t see can be more dangerous,” Houser said.

Many of the rip current signs currently on American beaches were developed to support the “Break the Grip of the Rip” campaign, launched in 2004 through a partnership of the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA), NOAA and the National Sea Grant Program. The campaign also educates the public about rip currents during Rip Current Awareness Week, which is the first full week of June each year.

USLA President B. Chris Brewster said the campaign has been successful in its primary goals: increasing awareness of and dispelling myths about rip currents, and helping people learn how to escape a rip current if they are caught in one. “One of the things that the signs and the educational effort has done is raise awareness substantially of the existence of rip currents and that they exist wherever there is surf.”

He said the signs are most valuable for swimmers in areas without lifeguards, and help people stay calm if they are caught in a rip. “Panic is one of the biggest problems with people fighting rip currents, and just letting them know that they can get out of a rip current using some fairly simple techniques reduces the likelihood of panic.”

Brannstrom noted that many beach visitors approach the ocean with a lack of caution. “They don’t need to be knowledgeable about everything, but they do need to know about this one thing that can turn a really pleasant outing into disaster. Ultimately it’s their responsibility whether they go into the water, but hopefully they’re doing it with the right information.”

Pictured:

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. (Image courtesy Dr. Chris Houser, Texas A&M University Department of Geography and Texas Sea Grant)

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

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Texas Sea Grant is a unique partnership that unites the resources of the federal government, the State of Texas and universities across the state to create knowledge, tools, products and services that benefit the economy, the environment and the citizens of Texas. It is administered through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is one of 33 university-based Sea Grant Programs around the country. Texas Sea Grant is a non-academic research center in the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M University. The program’s mission is to improve the understanding, wise use and stewardship of Texas coastal and marine resources.