There have been five drowning incidents related to rip currents this year in New Jersey, well above average for this point in the season, officials say.
“Right now, it’s trending to a pretty bad place,” said Jon Miller, a professor at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken who tracks rip currents. “Five at this point is among the worst I’m aware of.”
Rip currents are narrow channels of fast-moving water that pull swimmers away from shore. They typically appear as a channel of choppy water, often visible by a difference in color or a line of foam or debris moving seaward.
Walter Drag, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the dangerous currents can be influenced by wind and weather conditions or by the profile of the coastline. But even more dangerous is the mind-set of the swimmers, he said.
“This year, all the presumed rip current fatalities were young, between ages 10 and 24 ... with above-normal sea surface temperatures because of the warm winter and spring,” he said. “And I believe all of the early season fatalities have been at unguarded locations in the late afternoon or evening.”
However, Drag said people of all ages die in rip currents, and a lot of it has to do with education.
“People should avoid jetties and piers and, ideally, swim at beaches where there are lifeguards, especially if they are weaker swimmers or tired,” he said.
According to the U.S. Lifesaving Association, there are about 100 deaths related to rip currents nationwide each year. Rip currents account for about 80 percent of all rescues performed by lifeguards.
Last month a 10-year-old North Carolina boy, Khitan Devine, drowned after he and several family members were caught in a rip current in Atlantic City. His body was recovered three days later in Margate.
Miller said rip currents tend to be cyclical, with some years having no deaths, but the average is about four per year.
Miller and his students have developed a smartphone app that lifeguards can use to share data about rip currents with the National Weather Service and researchers nationwide. The app is not currently accessible to the general public.
Currently, Miller said, there are eight participating towns — all of then in North Jersey — but he’s looking to expand southward.
“The big advantage of the app is one of public safety,” Miller said. “A week ago we had two deaths in Seaside Park and Asbury Park on what was supposed to be a moderate-risk day.”
The additional data may help better predict days that don’t fit the typical profile for high incidents of rip currents, he said.
Sea Grant, an organization that promotes stewardship of the state’s coastline, is also holding an event today in Asbury Park to promote awareness of rip currents and safety. The event will include demonstrations by Miller and several other organizations of new tools being created to help protect swimmers.
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