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.
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.