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Marine geologist: NC coast creates conditions ripe for rip currents

May 6, 2019

The official start of summer is still weeks away, but already three people have lost their lives swimming in the Atlantic Ocean off Emerald Isle.

In April, a pair of Wake Forest teens got swept up in a rip current during spring break. Ian Lewis drowned and his body washed ashore days later. Paige Merical was pulled from the water at 14 minutes and died at the hospital.

On Saturday, Justin Hinds, a Marine stationed at Camp Lejeune, was pulled from the water by his friends. While his death had not officially been blamed on a rip current, yellow flags were posted on Saturday, indicating a moderate risk.

Rip currents are a killer in the Carolinas. Between 2000 and 2017, they killed more people than flooding, tornadoes and lightning combined. The National Weather Service says 16 people died in the North Carolina surf in 2018. Nine of them were caught in rip currents.

Marine geologist Orrin Pilkey explained how the unique geography of the Outer Banks along with man’s efforts to preserve the beach may play a role.

Pilkey, who is retired from Duke University, says the shape of the state’s coast – how far it juts into the Atlantic, coming roughly 30 miles from the continental shelf – makes the waters favorable to tricky currents.

“I think we’re a bit more prone because we, on average, have higher waves,” he said. “There’s more water there pushing up against the shoreline, and it has to get out somehow.”

Pilkey believes another factor could be beach nourishment projects, which build up beaches to combat erosion.

“Because they’re steeper, the waves coming in have less friction, and so there’s less reduction of the wave energy and wave height. When a wave breaks, it creates a more powerful wave, which could create a more powerful rip current,” he said.

There are no scientific studies linking beach nourishment and stronger rip currents. Pilkey thinks a drone would be the optimal tool for finding out.

For swimmers standing on the shore, a sure sign is sandy or muddy water flowing away from the beach.

“I would most certainly recommend that anybody swimming on a North Carolina beach look first. You can see these rip currents. You might see mud-filled water going offshore,” he said.

Rip currents are typically caused by a gap in an offshore sandbar.

“If there are two currents butting up against each other, even if the currents are pretty slight, that can still form a significant rip current,” Pilkey said.

Fatigue is fatal for swimmers caught in a rip current. The best advice is to float, and to swim parallel to the shore and eventually you’ll get out.

Rip current survival tips