NOAA launches national rip current forecast model tested on the Outer Banks

This image shows a rip current using a harmless green dye. Rip currents are powerful, narrow channels of fast-moving water that are prevalent along the East, Gulf, and West coasts of the U.S., as well as along the shores of the Great Lakes. Moving at speeds of up to eight feet per second, rip currents can move faster than an Olympic swimmer. [NOAA image]

For the first time, NOAA is launching a national rip current forecast model aimed at saving lives of beach-goers around the country — and the model was developed on the beaches of Kill Devil Hills.

The agency says the new model can predict the hourly probability of rip currents along U.S. beaches up to six days out.

NOAA’s National Ocean Service and National Weather Service collaboratively developed and implemented the model, which leverages wave and water level information from the recently upgraded NWS Nearshore Wave Prediction System. Similar to predicting weather or precipitation, the model predicts the likelihood of dangerous seaward currents on a sliding scale – from 0 to 100%.

The forecast model covers a majority of the U.S. East and Gulf Coast and portions of California, Hawaii, Guam and Puerto Rico. Additional coastline coverage will be expanded in the future.

“Rip currents account for an estimated 100 deaths in the United States each year,” said Gregory Dusek, NOAA scientist who developed the model.

The model was tested first in Kill Devil Hills, with help from the town’s Ocean Rescue lifeguards, then validated on other beaches in North Carolina.

“Before this, forecasters were manually predicting rip currents on a large section of the ocean twice a day and only a day or two into the future. The earlier prediction has potential to substantially increase awareness and reduce drownings,” Dusek said.

Every year, several people die on Outer Banks beaches due to rip currents. The new model comes two years after a National Weather Service employee Dr. William M. Lapenta, who headed NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Prediction, died in rough surf in the town of Duck.

“Safety for beach-goers and boaters is taking a major leap forward with the launch of this new NOAA model,” said Nicole LeBoeuf, acting director of NOAA’s National Ocean Service. “Extending forecasting capabilities for dangerous rip currents out to six days provides forecasters and local authorities greater time to inform residents about the presence of this deadly beach hazard, thereby saving lives and protecting communities.”

Further improvements are on the horizon and the application of webcam imagery and artificial intelligence identification of rip currents is showing promise across the research community. Partners in this work include the Southeast Coastal Ocean Observing Regional Association (SECOORA), the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) and academia.

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