MARSHFIELD (CBS) – Thousands head out to sea to recover from the New England summer heat. Most of us can see the potential danger signs of an afternoon thunderstorm or a local shark sighting, but many don’t know what the greatest danger to local swimmers is: a rift current.
“We have a lot of people who have no idea about the ocean and its power,” Cindy Castro, Marchfield Beach administrator, told WBZ-TV.
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A rift current is a narrow channel of fast flowing water that flows away from the shoe and can move faster than an Olympic swimmer.
“What we are looking for are the waves breaking on each side and a channel right into the middle and you will see rolling which is rough surf and that will be your indicator that you have a high tide,” explained Castro.
She said Marshfield typically has three to four low-risk rescues per season. But a few years ago a man who was renting a piece of land without being aware of the water conditions got caught in a current and died.
“So you’re serious,” said Castro.
Very little information can be made available to lifeguards at this point.
“They just see it and call for a guard and then warn people to get out of the water,” Castro said.
Eighty percent of lifeguard rescue operations across the country are due to tearing currents. It’s a common danger that many beach-goers are unaware of.
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“Rip currents kill more people than tornadoes, lightning or hail in the United States each year,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Byrce Williams.
Williams said a new rip-current forecast model will improve beach safety this summer.
“This model takes so many different things into account, it’s really a huge improvement over just looking the lifeguard trying to see it visually,” he said.
Wind, wave, tidal cycle, and water level data are just a few of the factors driving this new model. It will cover much of the US east and Gulf coasts, including New England beaches.
“This model will have a resolution of about 1 km, so a beach that is right next to an adjacent beach may have a different prediction a few miles down,” Williams said.
The beaches will have rift current on a sliding scale of zero to 100 percent probability.
The new model will be able to predict the probability up to six days in advance.
“This is really going to be a life-saving new upgrade,” said Williams.
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“And that will be incredible for us, we will know this morning, we can warn people immediately when they come to the beach,” said Castro.