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Recognizing a rip current can save your life

There was a tragic story in our news Wednesday when a teenager died after being caught in a rip current at Emerald Isle Beach.

While technically rip currents are not a weather topic, they can be created by weather systems. For that reason, meteorologists have a natural interest in them, and the National Weather Service has an entire subsection of its site devoted to rip current safety.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury death for children ages 1 to 14 years, and the fifth leading cause for people of all ages." It's estimated that more than 100 people die each year after drowning in rip currents on U.S. beaches.

If you understand the causes of rip currents and know how to spot one in the water, you can avoid them.

When big waves crash on the beach one after another, the water can pile up temporarily on the beach before gravity pulls it back out to sea. Once the water starts returning to the ocean, it will move in the path of least resistance quickly and often in a very concentrated volume. That fast current moving back out to the ocean is a rip current. The water can be moving as fast as 8 feet per second, although typical rip current speeds are more like 1 to 2 feet per second.

Rip currents tend to form more around man-made structures such as groins, jetties, and piers, although breaks in natural sand bars and reefs as well as underwater troughs in the beach also make likely locations.

They look different from the rest of the water around them. When standing on the beach, looking out at the breaking waves, you may see an area of water that looks different in color, foamy, or mucky compared to the water you see in the waves around it. Those features are typical of rip currents.

If you are unlucky enough to be caught in a rip current, the first rule is not to fight it. You can quickly wear yourself out trying to swim against it, especially if the water is moving extremely fast. Your best bet is to swim parallel to the shore until you are no longer in its grasp and then swim back to shore. If you can't escape, do your best to float or tread water and call for help. Do not panic.

For optimal safety, pay attention to any posted signs warning of dangerous rip currents, never swim by yourself, and do not go into water with big waves if you can't swim.