Scientists study rip currents at Jersey Shore

Lifeguard Blake Trabuchi-Downey in Sea Isle City, N.J. A national campaign - "Break the Gripof the Rip!" - is telling swimmers how to deal with the currents and follow basic safety rules.
Lifeguard Blake Trabuchi-Downey in Sea Isle City, N.J. A national campaign - "Break the Gripof the Rip!" - is telling swimmers how to deal with the currents and follow basic safety rules.
Posted: August 15, 2010

CAPE MAY - While late-summer swimmers may be frolicking in the warm ocean and bodysurfing with big waves churned up by stormy weather patterns, Jersey Shore researchers are preparing for their annual lesson in rip currents.

For more than 20 years, oceanographers have been trying to gain a better understanding of the deadly phenomenon through surf zone observations, laboratory experiments, and other studies. Their research feeds data to agencies such as the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency's National Weather Service to forecast rip currents.

But even after all these years, scientists say they're still learning how the channeled currents flow away from the shore, through the surf zone, and past the line of breaking waves. So powerful are the currents that they can quickly pull even the most experienced swimmers past safe areas.

The NOAA promoted a "Break the Grip of the Rip!" campaign this summer by distributing signs and pamphlets in coastal areas to educate swimmers about what to do if caught in a rip and reminding them to observe basic safety rules: Don't swim alone, and stick to beaches staffed by lifeguards.

More than 80 percent of surf lifeguard rescues involve rip currents, which cause more than 100 drownings a year, according to the U.S. Lifesaving Association.

Last weekend, surf kicked up by the remnants of Tropical Storm Colin required about 30 surf rescues by the Cape May Beach Patrol, more than double the norm.

"When we started this research, we never dreamed that all these years later we would still be focused on the sort of chicken or the egg question that rip currents present," said Michael Bruno, dean of engineering and science at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken.

In the last two decades, Bruno initiated the development of several ocean and weather observation and forecasting systems, including a series of underwater devices to record wave action and rip currents. He installed the first observation devices off Avalon in the mid-1990s.

"There is a lot we still don't know," he said.

But technology, including radar sensors on the ocean floor and devices to measure winds and waves, has taken at least some of the mystery out of where and when rip currents may occur, Bruno said.

Those devices, in locations including Cape May, Avalon, Brant Beach, and Sea Girt, have helped develop valuable theories on the characteristics of waves that seem to be precursors of rip currents, said Josh Kohut, a professor of oceanography at Rutgers University, which works with Stevens in maintaining the observation project. It's funded through the universities and New Jersey Sea Grant, a nonprofit environmental consortium.

"The entire summer really gives us a lot of data on this, starting in June," Kohut said. "But this time of the year, as things start picking up in the tropics, is when we really watch and wait to see what is going to happen. Then we can use our observations to formulate a better understanding of all this in the future."

In the meantime, good old-fashioned lifeguarding is the order of the day, Cape May Beach Patrol Capt. Harry Mogck said.

"Forecasting of these things has certainly improved over the years, but we can still see a rip current form at a moment's notice," said Mogck, a 30-year veteran of a patrol that watches over a particularly roiling current, where the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay meet.

"Here, one of the main things we train our guards to observe are rip currents. Spotting them and then avoiding a dangerous situation is the easiest way to prevent injuries and save lives," Mogck said.

The current seemed to quiet down after last weekend, he said, but he is sure that his patrol will be busy again.

"We're just getting into prime rip current time now," Mogck said.

Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or

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