ATLANTA — Strong winds, tides and phases of the moon can create coastal currents that an Olympic swimmer would struggle to fight. They create a dangerous situation that kills about 100 people on U.S. beaches each year.
“I grew up really close to Lake Michigan so rip currents and things like that were really important for us up there,” said mom Ericka Gilbert while vacationing with her family on Tybee Island in Chatham County.
Gilbert said a family friend died in a rip current, so the danger is top of mind on beach trips.
[VIDEO: How to survive a rip current]
“That’s not what you think about when you go on vacation but it’s also really important to make sure you’re mindful of it. You don’t have those accidents. You don’t have those injuries,” Gilbert said.
City of Tybee Island senior lifeguard Todd Horne said it’s a threat more folks visiting the beach should pay attention to. He said about 85 percent of the people his team rescues are caught in rip currents.
“Some days we have rip currents all day long. Some days it’s just an hour around high tide,” Horne said.
He said the current itself won’t pull a swimmer under, but if a vacationer unfamiliar with rip currents is caught in one it can turn deadly.
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“If somebody doesn’t happen to see you get pulled out and you panic, there is a chance you’re going to use up all your energy and before somebody can see you in trouble, or in distress, you may go under,” Horne said.
Now, the National Weather Service is using artificial intelligence and data to help predict dangerous current conditions more precisely.
“Rip currents are actually quite deadly. They kill anywhere between 50 to 100 or so people a year in our country, which is pretty big,” said Ron Morales, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Charleston, South Carolina.
The NWS has been forecasting them for years, but they relied on reports from lifeguards and calculations by hand. AI technology can find patterns in data that a human can’t.
“Once we know that we can translate that to trying to understand how these waves generate varying types of rip currents and in strength and in numbers. And we’ve been spending years trying to understand that,” Morales said.
NWS meteorologists are now using drones to test how accurate the AI technology predicts the currents. Ericka Gilbert said a better rip current forecast will keep her family out of the water if conditions are too dangerous.
“It might be disappointing to us because we’re on vacation and we want to be in the water, and we want to see dolphins up close,” Gilbert said. “We want to do all of that but ultimately in the grand scheme of things nobody wants to go home one less person.”
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