The currents that will kill us all…

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Perranporth beach in May 2014. Multiple rips visible alongshore. Could you spot them?

…or so they would have you believe. Actress Anne Hathaway ‘pulled under by a riptide’, Scottish man killed when the ‘lethal current dragged him underwater’ and the ‘children that screamed as they were pulled under by strong rip currents’. Rip currents are indeed a very real risk to recreational users of the beach, with more fatalities in the US attributed to rip currents per year than shark attacks, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods or lightning strikes (Lushine, 1991). Despite this, their slow, attritional nature means they rarely hit the national headlines in the same way that short onset, low occurrence but catastrophic natural hazards do. Isolated events, often where a young person or a group of people die in rip currents, however, do make it into the media.

This media attention is vital in educating the public about rip currents in order to reduce the number of incidents and deaths they cause. The problem? As is the case in many fields (aviation, climate change, etc.), media reporting is sensationalist and misinformed. The notion that a rip current will ‘pull you under the water’ is utterly false; it will not. A rip current will transport you offshore, but the flow is horizontal, there is no downward-directed component to it. This small piece of misinformation is enough to make people caught in a rip current panic and fight to stay afloat, constantly battling against the imminent onset of some vacuum-like force that is about to pin them to the seafloor. In reality, if they were aware of the fact that this won’t happen, they would approach the situation armed with the mindset that all they need do is calmly tread water until such time as they escape the current. Many victims of rip currents have succumbed to heart-attacks, likely brought on by a) the panic of not understanding what’s happening, or b) the onset of panic as a result of the accounts of rip currents in the media.

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Actress Anne Hathaway caught in rip current

Pictures emerged this year of a panicked Anne Hathaway caught in a rip current, and although she was indeed in some trouble, the reporting of the ‘science’ (in the loosest possible sense of the word) is farcical at best and dangerous at worst (see Daily Mail, 2014). The report shows a picture of only her arms above the water with a caption stating the rip current has ‘pulled [her] into the water’. Much more likely is that in her panic, her treading water becomes ineffective. Another picture shows her quite comfortably swimming before ‘the tide suddenly and menacingly turned’. The concept of a rip ‘tide’ is also a misnomer. The rip current is generally controlled by the submerged sand bars and the gaps in between them; it is not a tidal current. It is true, there are strong tidal currents that can take you offshore, especially if you swim near estuaries or inlets as the basins flood and flush with the rising and falling tide, but these are not rip currents.

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The Daily Mail reports how she ‘flails as she was pulled into the water’.

 

Many member of the public will also identify undertow as a large threat on the beach, often confusing undertow with rip currents. Undertow is again the concept of some current that pulls you to the depths of the ocean. In reality, undertow is negligible in the surfzone when considering beach safety. It is the result of a broken wave running back down the beach and meeting the next incoming wave, travelling at velocities much less than rip currents. This return flow down the beach may flow out under the incoming waves, but it is confined to the immediate vicinity of the beach and very rarely maintains and current speed in water depths over 0.75m.  Media misinformation regarding this process is one thing, but the reporting of undertow on a subsidiary website of the Discovery Channel is repugnant when it describes a ‘current that [will] pull you underwater to the bottom of the ocean’ (Discovery Channel, 2011). This combination of scaremongering and inaccurate science potentially puts the public at more risk when they visit the beach.

Needless to say that media reporting of this nature is unlikely to be malicious, but that said, it is extremely negligent. Rip currents are dangerous hazards at the coast, but only if you are misinformed or uninformed. A study by Williamson et al., (2008) showed that 80% of the public claim to be able to identify a rip current, but faced with a picture, only 40% could identify the rip current. Half of the respondents identified the area with the rip current as the safest place to swim in the picture. Media reporting needs to concern itself with furnishing the public with accurate facts, and avoid terminology such as ‘riptides’ and ‘undertow’. Sensationalism in the media is nothing new when reporting accidents and incidents, but in the case of beachgoer’s safety, the current state of reporting means many of the reports contribute to the problem, not the solution.

 

References

Daily Mail (2014) Pictured: The moment panicked Anne Hathaway got caught in a riptide and screamed for help in choppy Hawaii waters. Available online: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2536733/Moment-panicked-Anne-Hathaway-gets-caught-riptide-screams-help-choppy-Hawaii-waters.html. Accessed 23 Jul 14.

Discovery Channel (2011) Oceanography: Are rip currents, riptides and undertow the same thing? http://curiosity.discovery.com/question/rip-currents-riptides-undertow-same. Accessed 23 Jul 14.

Lushine, J.B. (1991) A study of rip current drownings and weather related factors. National Weather Digest, 16: 13-19.

Williamson, A., Hatfield, J., Brander, R. et al. (2008) Improving beach safety: the Science of the Surf research project. Proceedings of 2008 Australian Water Safety Conference, Sydney, pp.102-103.


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