By Chris Dolce weather.com
Rip currents claimed the lives of eight people in August’s first week, pushing this year’s number of swimmers killed by this underrated danger to at least 45 in U.S. waters.
The deaths in the first seven days of August were spread out from Lake Michigan to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.
Two people were killed by rip currents on Aug. 2 in the waters off of Dauphin Island, Alabama. This past Sunday was the worst day with two deaths attributed to rip currents in Grand Haven, Michigan, and one each in Emerald Isle, North Carolina; Orange Beach, Alabama; Navarre, Florida; and Destin, Florida.
Rip currents are strong but narrow currents that flow away from the beach and pose a threat to all swimmers when they form. Rip currents can develop at any beach with breaking waves.
Large-scale weather disasters such as tornadoes and hurricanes create headlines when it comes to deadly weather events. Rip currents, however, can be just as dangerous and contribute to a large number of deaths each year, many of them flying under the radar of the news media.
Through July 31, at least 37 rip current related deaths were reported in U.S. waters, including Guam and Puerto Rico, according to the National Weather Service. The additional eight fatalities so far in August means the annual total is now approaching four dozen.
Florida has had the most rip current deaths in 2018 with 17 through Aug. 7. North Carolina is second with nine fatalities.
Rip current deaths have been tracked by the National Weather Service (NWS) on an annual basis only since 2013, so long-term averages are unknown. In the last four years, however, the U.S. has averaged 65 rip current fatalities per year.
This year’s rip current toll dwarfs the four tornado deaths that have been documented so far this year in the U.S. It’s also three times the number of lightning-related deaths, which stands at 15 through July 14.
Rip currents have killed more people annually than tornadoes from 2014 through 2017, so this year is not an outlier. Three of the last four years have also had more rip current fatalities than lightning and tornadoes combined.
(MORE: The Deadliest Weather of 2017)
The NWS also noted that tracking deaths from rip currents and other surf-related hazards is a challenge since many are not documented or reported.
Florida and Puerto Rico have had the most rip current deaths in the four-year period 2014-2017 with 63 and 54, respectively. California, North Carolina, New Jersey, Texas and Alabama all have rip current death tolls that are in the double digits since 2014.
The potential for dangerous rip currents is not just a concern for beachgoers at the ocean. Several rip current deaths have also occurred along the shores of the Great Lakes the last few years.
A rip current danger can exist on parts of our nation’s coastline on sunny days with the instigating weather system hundreds of miles away, fooling beachgoers into thinking the water is safe.
If you are planning a day at the beach, it should be a priority to take note of the rip current risk for that day.
There are color-coded flags placed on many beaches each day to communicate the current threat.
A green flag (low risk) indicates that strong rip currents are not likely. A yellow flag (moderate risk) means that there is a good chance for strong rip currents and a red flag (high risk) signals that strong rip currents are expected. You can also get a daily rip current forecast from NOAA.