On Air: Communicating Rip Current Risk in English and Spanish
Coastal Processes & Hazards / Research - News

The Academic Minute


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December 8, 2022 — Staying safe in the ocean is all about communicating the right message to swimmers.

Jase Bernhardt, associate professor in the department of geology, environment and sustainability at Hofstra University, explains how.

Jase Bernhardt has had a lifelong passion for studying weather and climate, dating to his childhood in Upstate New York. At Hofstra, Dr. Bernhardt spearheaded the installation of three campus weather stations, which provide real-time data and practical experience for his meteorology students.

His research also includes using virtual reality to improve storm warnings and preparation.

In 2022 Dr. Bernhardt launched a project to build bilingual communication warning tools about rip currents and became one of eight coastal research programs to receive $1.3 million from New York Sea Grant (NYSG).

Rip currents pose a hazard to visitors to beaches in Long Island and across the nation. Groups such as the National Weather Service and local municipalities provide warnings and education materials about rip currents to the public. According to Dr. Bernhardt, signage and education often do not take into account the region’s large Spanish-speaking population. “There is a dearth of safety materials in languages other than English,” he said, “and that can lead to fatalities.”

Dr. Bernhardt received a B.S. in atmospheric science from Cornell University, where he researched east coast winter storms. He attended graduate school at Penn State, working in the Department of Geography, with a focus on climatology. He expanded his research interests to include human impacts on climate, historical climatology, and the usage of GIS. While at Penn State, Jase served as a broadcast meteorologist on the Weather World television program, broadcast throughout the state of Pennsylvania.

It might surprise you to learn that one of the leading causes of weather-related fatalities each year across the United States is rip currents. Rip currents are narrow but strong flows of ocean water typically originating at the shoreline and moving rapidly out to sea. They are more frequent during periods of rough surf and large waves, sometimes due to tropical storms well offshore.

While rip currents do not actually pull people underwater, they can sometimes become dangerous. Why? Because when swimmers are impacted by a rip current, they may panic, as they fear being swept out to sea. In doing so, they often try to fight the rip current by attempting to swim back to shore. The currents, however, can be much stronger than any human can swim. So going against one is often a challenge, and the fatigue from fighting the current can result in the need for a lifeguard rescue.

Rip current danger demonstrates the complexity of severe weather outreach. While the rip itself is not particularly dangerous, an inappropriate response to one can turn deadly. Thus, providing memorable lessons of what to do when caught in a rip current is of vital importance. Quite simply, if you are caught in a rip current, you should stay calm, wave for help, and if you feel comfortable doing so, swim parallel to shore—not towards it—to escape the rip.

To make those instructions more engaging, especially for younger swimmers who might be more likely to swim without lifeguards, my team has developed a virtual reality video game where participants are caught in a rip current and have to escape. Initial results indicate that this form of outreach is effective, and we are currently testing and translating the game into Spanish, to make it accessible to a broader population.

The Academic Minute is a two-and-a-half minute daily module which features researchers from colleges and universities around the world, keeping listeners abreast of what’s new and exciting in the academy.  Produced by WAMC Northeast Public Radio, the show features a different professor each day who offers updates on groundbreaking research and how it helps us better understand the world around us.

More Info: New York Sea Grant

New York Sea Grant (NYSG), a cooperative program of Cornell University and the State University of New York (SUNY), is one of 34 university-based programs under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Sea Grant College Program.

Since 1971, NYSG has represented a statewide network of integrated research, education and extension services promoting coastal community economic vitality, environmental sustainability and citizen awareness and understanding about the State’s marine and Great Lakes resources.

Through NYSG’s efforts, the combined talents of university scientists and extension specialists help develop and transfer science-based information to many coastal user groups—businesses and industries, federal, state and local government decision-makers and agency managers, educators, the media and the interested public.

The program maintains Great Lakes offices at Cornell University, SUNY Buffalo, SUNY Oswego and the Wayne County Cooperative Extension office in Newark. In the State's marine waters, NYSG has offices at Stony Brook University in Long Island, Brooklyn College and Cornell Cooperative Extension in NYC and Kingston in the Hudson Valley.

For updates on Sea Grant activities: www.nyseagrant.org has RSS, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube links. NYSG offers a free e-list sign up via www.nyseagrant.org/nycoastlines for its flagship publication, NY Coastlines/Currents, which is published quarterly.

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