Weather's Role in Rip Current and Riptide Formation

On a scorching hot summer day at the beach, the ocean water may be your only haven from the sun. But the water, too, has its dangers. Rip currents and rip tides are a summer danger to swimmers who seek refuge from the air's heat and high temperatures in the ocean's cool waters.

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What is a Rip Current?

riptide warning beach
Rob Reichenfeld/Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

Rip currents and tides take their name from the fact that they rip swimmers away from shore. They are strong, narrow jets of water that move away from the beach and into the ocean. (Think of them as treadmills of water.) They form in large bodies of water only.

The average rip spans 30 feet across and travels at a speed of 5 mph (that's as fast as an Olympic swimmer!).  

A rip current can be divided into three parts -- feeders, a neck, and a head. The area closest to shore is known as "feeders." Feeders are the channels of water that feed water near the shoreline into the rip itself. 

Next is the "neck," the area where water rushes out to sea. It is the strongest part of the rip current.

Water from the neck then flows into the "head," the region where water from the current spreads outward into deeper ocean waters and weakens.

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Rip Current vs. Riptide

Believe it or not, rip currents, riptides, and undertows are all the same thing.

While the word undertow suggests going underwater, these currents will not pull you under the water per se, they'll just knock you off your feet and pull you out to sea.

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What Weather Causes Rips?

Anytime winds blow perpendicular to the shoreline, it's possible that a rip could form. Distant storms, such as low pressure centers or hurricanes, also encourage rip formation when their winds blow across the ocean surface creating ocean swells -- waves that push water inland. (This is typically the cause of rips whenever they occur when the weather is calm, sunny, and dry at the beach.) 

When either of these conditions happen, breaking waves pile water onto the beach. As it piles up, gravity pulls it back out to sea, but instead of flowing back altogether and evenly, the water follows the path of least resistance, traveling through breaks in the sand on the ocean floor (sandbar). Because these breaks are underwater, they remain unseen by beachgoers and swimmers and can take anyone who may be playing in the path of a sandbar break by surprise. 

Rip currents tend to be stronger during low tides, when the ocean water level is lower. 

Rip currents can occur at any time and on any day, regardless of the tidal cycle. 

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Recognizing Rip Currents at the Beach

Riptide
Aerial view of multiple rip currents. Jodi Jacobson / Getty Images

Rip currents are hard to spot, especially if you're at ground level or if seas are rough and choppy. If you see any of these in the surf, it could signal the location of a rip.

  • A dark-colored pool of water. (Water in the rip current sits over breaks in the sandbar, i.e., deeper waters, and so it appears darker.)
  • A dirty or muddy pool of water (caused by the rip churning up sand away from the beach).
  • Sea foam flowing farther out into the surf.  
  • Areas where the waves don't break. (The waves will break in shallower areas around the sandbar first.) 
  • An area of water or seaweed flowing away from the beach.

Nighttime rip currents are nearly impossible to identify. 

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How to Escape Rip Currents

rip current escape
To escape rip currents, swim across it and parallel to shore. NOAA NWS

If you're standing at least knee-deep in the ocean then you're in enough water to be dragged out to sea by a rip current. Should you ever find yourself caught in one, follow these simple steps to escape!

  • Don't fight the current! (If you try to out-swim it, you'll just wear yourself out and increase your chance of drowning. This is how most rip current deaths occur!)
  • Swim parallel to the shoreline. Keep doing so until you no longer feel the current's pull.
  • Once free, swim back to land at an angle. 

If you "freeze up" or feel unable to do the above, then stay calm, face the shore and loudly call and wave for help. The National Weather Service sums up these survival nicely with the phrase, wave and yell...swim parallel.

Going back to the part, you may wonder why you couldn't ride the current to it's head region and then swim back to shore. True, if you're carried into the head, you, but you'll also be several hundred feet from shore. That's one long swim back!