rip currents

Jay Mann, a long-time surf reporter to the National Weather Service, and Jon Miller, coastal sciences professor at Stevens Institute of Technology, talk about rip currents in Surf City.

SURF CITY - Yet another lasting effect of Hurricane Sandy could be more dangerous swimming conditions along parts of the New Jersey shore as rip currents could be stronger due to beach changes.

But more eyes also could be keeping tabs on where dangerous rip currents form and how weather and ocean conditions could be influencing swimming conditions as lifeguards in 17 beach towns will be sending information to the National Weather Service throughout the day. The weather service will use that information to issue alerts and warnings over dangerous conditions.

"We're trying to prevent the loss of life with rip current awareness," said Walter Drag, senior meteorologist with the National Weather Service, Mount Holly.

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Rip currents are narrow channels of water rushing back out to sea after crashing onto the shore as waves. While scientists don't know the exact details for how and why these currents form, they do know the rips most frequently occur near submerged structures, such as jetties and pipes and where there are openings in offshore sandbars, said Jon Miller, coastal engineering professor with Stevens Institute of Technology. "As the tides change, rip currents can pop up as quickly as they disappear."

Swimmers can get caught in the currents and panic, trying to swim against the flow and tiring. This is how many drownings occur, said Jay Mann, a volunteer weather watcher who has reported surf conditions on Long Beach Island for years. The National Weather Service has designated June 2 to 8 as rip current awareness week in an effort to educate beach goers so they know how to avoid the hazards.

Some beaches this summer, however, may have stronger currents due to Sandy's powerful waves, which altered the landscape of the ocean floor and beaches, eroding millions of cubic yards of sand and depositing that sand just offshore in new sandbars, Miller said.

While Sandy altered the landscape of much of Long Beach Island, the beaches are safe and the new sand bars may actually help improve swimming conditions, said Long Beach Township Beach Patrol Chief Don Myers. Myers, who disagrees that Sandy may create stronger rip currents, said his guards are on alert for the changing conditions throughout the day and they respond as necessary.

"I really think our beaches and the water are in the best shape they've been in years," Myers. "The sand bars dissipate the waves, and they don't have the same amount of energy. ... The profile is very gradual. You don't have that drop off."

Last year five people drowned in New Jersey after getting caught in an early season rip current, including a 10-year-old North Carolina boy visiting Atlantic City. Conditions last year were particularly dangerous, Drag said, because the ocean water was unusually warm early in the season. The deaths all occurred on hot days with good surf conditions, he said, but when guards were not on duty.

Miller partnered last year with the National Weather Service and about a dozen beach patrols along the coast to help develop an iPhone app that lifeguards could use to report rip current conditions to the weather service, which could then issue public warnings. This year, Miller said, the number of beach patrols using the system has increased to 17, including Atlantic City, Wildwood and North Wildwood.

This partnership, Drag said, is one way that New Jersey forecasters and beach experts hope to help beachgoers learn more about the dangers of rip currents and, thus, not go in the water when conditions are dangerous or when beaches are unguarded.

Drag noted that many shore visitors learn to swim in pools and are not familiar with the power of the ocean and may not have the same respect for the water as lifeguards and experienced surfers and ocean swimmers have.

"Clearly, swimming in a pool, which is relatively calm, is a lot different than the energy of the ocean, which can take a lot out of you pretty quickly," he said.

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