By Kendall McGee | June 3, 2021 at 5:55 PM EDT – Updated June 4 at 10:14 AM
SUNSET BEACH, N.C. (WECT) – Rip currents are the leading weather-related cause of death in our region, and local beach rescues are teaming up with forecasters to try and build better predictions on when to expect the most dangerous conditions.
In April, experts at the National Weather Service rolled out new technology it hopes will save lives. The previous forecast system began in the 90′s and lacked detail.
Before the shift this spring, forecasts were based on tides, wind and swell and gave a blanket rip current warning for an entire county. Now, the new model uses information on incoming wave energy and on the shoreline itself to give a detailed forecast for each of our area beaches.
“We’re on the precipice of the next generation of rip current predictions,” said NWS Warning Coordination Meteorologist Steven Pfaff. “Before, It was a very broad brushed approach to doing rip current forecasting. You might’ve had days where there’s a lot of strong rips at Wrightsville Beach but there’s nothing at Carolina Beach, but we didn’t have the capability to delineate that, but now we can pretty much do a rip current forecast for each and every beach up and down our coastline.”
Where the old system could only give a broad time period for warnings, the new model provides data six days out and allows people to see an hour by hour forecast.
The more specific time predictions allow lifeguards and rescue crews time to plan ahead and mobilize resources before the conditions become dangerous.
Rescue groups along the coast have a role to play in the new system, too.
Every morning, the NWS calls Sunset Beach Fire crews on the beach for ocean observation data.
“They call around 10 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon. We give them wave heights, any currents we see, rip currents,” explained Sunset Beach Fire Chief Paul Hasenmeier.
Those same observation calls have also been going out to crews in Wrighstville Beach, Carolina Beach, Kure Beach and Oak Island.
“They’re trying to refine the model for the southern beaches and that’s why we got involved,” added Oak Island Water Rescue Chief Tony Young.
The real time data from the shore help the NWS track trends and fine tune the new model, making it more reliable. Potentially lifesaving information that proves to be important to the rescue crews, too.
“Their predictions and the data and information they give us is certainly valuable. It keeps us on our toes and lets us be ready for whatever is coming at us,” said Chief Hasenmeier. “That’s the goal — is that it’s preventing drownings, it’s preventing anybody from getting into trouble out in the water.”
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