Photo: Alex Pang

Researchers awarded $150,000 to develop RipFinder app

A new funding award will help warn ocean swimmers of dangerous rip currents before they enter the water
Clare Leschin-Hoar

Seasoned surfers know the telltale signs of an ocean rip current. The common ocean phenomenon can mean an easy and welcomed lift past the surf’s break to catch the next wave. 

But for less experienced ocean swimmers, rip currents can be decidedly dangerous, causing an estimated 100 drownings across the U.S. every year. It’s an area ripe for improved public awareness of the dangers.  

Armed with a new $150,000 funding award from the U.S. Coastal Research Program (USCRP) and the National Sea Grant Office, California Sea Grant will be working with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration senior scientist Greg Dusek, and Alex Pang, professor of computer science and engineering at University of California, Santa Cruz, to develop a mobile app that can improve public safety by providing users real time rip detection information, even in remote coastal locations in the U.S.

“Many of us might have seen beach signage informing the public what to do when caught in a rip current — don’t panic, swim parallel to shore until out of the rip’s pull,” Pang said. “However, few know how to recognize rip currents to avoid danger in the first place. Having a smartphone app can provide a real-time recognition tool.”

Once launched, the RipFinder app will use machine learning to process video from users’ smartphones to detect potential rip currents. This advancement can help users understand the different types of rip currents, how they form and what swimmers should look for before getting in the ocean — visible signs like a distinct area of murky water or breaking waves with turbulent water pulling offshore in between.

RipFinder will also share location information about detected rips with local lifeguards, the Webcams for Coastal Observations and Operational Support (WebCOOS) network and with NOAA, which can use the community-generated data to continuously improve its existing rip current forecast model.

“We’re looking to engage people in a more direct way,” Dusek said. “Existing beach signage is helpful, but people aren’t always looking at the signs and they can have limited information. We hope this app can help give people an idea of what a rip current looks like and help prevent them from getting into a rip current to begin with.”


Kate Murphy

California Sea Grant Communications Specialist

NOAA provides funding to Sea Grant institutions to increase the understanding, assessment, development, management, utilization, and conservation of the nation’s ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes resources. NOAA provides assistance to promote a strong educational base, responsive research and training activities, broad and prompt dissemination of knowledge and techniques, and multidisciplinary approaches to environmental problems in accordance with 33 USC 1121(b).


About California Sea Grant

NOAA’s California Sea Grant College Program funds marine research, education and outreach throughout California. Headquartered at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, California Sea Grant is one of 34 Sea Grant programs in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Department of Commerce.