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USF Researchers Examining What Fuels Deadly Rip Currents

On a single day--June 8, 2003--eight people drowned in rip currents along Florida's Panhandle beaches. Now remembered as Black Sunday, the currents claimed both the lives of swimmers caught by surprise and the people trying to rescue them.

Florida is no stranger to rip current deaths, easily leading the nation with 234 fatalities and another 199 injuries in a 15-year period studied by University of South Florida weather researchers. Their research shows that in addition to better safety education and measures, a better understanding of the weather patterns that typically proceed the formation of potentially deadly currents is needed.

Charles Paxton, the Science and Operations Officer for the National Weather Service office in Ruskin who also is completing his Ph.D. in USF's Department of Geography, Environment, and Planning, has analyzed the wind and sea level pressure readings in the days before rip current deaths occurred and found common patterns which could aid in warning swimmers and staffing beaches with lifeguards.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provides daily rip current forecasts and warnings, but Paxton's research indicates that beachgoers might actually be able to know days in advance if they need to take more precautions.

Working in conjunction with USF Assistant Professor Jennifer Collins, Paxton's research shows that analyses of wind and sea level pressure from the waters surrounding the lower 48 states indicate common weather patterns associated with rip current deaths and injuries. ...