Rips bigger killers than bushfires and sharks

By AAP with Amy Middleton 27 November 2013
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Rip currents kill more Australians per year than natural disasters and sharks combined, says a new study.

THEY MAY NOT OFTEN make the headlines, but a recent study has shown that rip currents kill more people on average in Australia than bushfires, floods, cyclones and sharks combined.

Rip currents are strong channels of water that flow away from the shore, into the open water at surf beaches and large lakes. Rips can flow at speeds of up to 2.5m per second, which is faster than a human can swim.

Led by Dr Rob Brander, a coastal geologist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, the research team analysed deaths from natural disasters and shark attacks based on records dating as far back as 1852.

Rips one of the biggest killers in Australia

The data was then compared with records from Australia’s National Coronial Information System, which recorded an average 21 deaths per year involving rips between 2004 and 2011.

Rob says the average yearly death toll from bushfires, floods, cyclones and shark attacks paled in comparison, with six, four, eight and one respectively. The findings were published in the journal Natural Hazards and Earth Science Systems.

“Rips account for greater overall loss of human life than other high-profile natural hazards,” Rob says. “Yet they do not get anywhere near as much attention and dedicated funding.”

Rob says events like bushfires have the capacity to claim many lives in a single disaster. “On the other hand, rip currents are almost always present and rarely result in more than one death at a time. But in the end, more people die as a result of them.”

How to spot a rip current

Beachsafe, a website set up by Surf Life Saving Australia to provide beach safety tips, advises to look for the following signs of a rip:

  • Deeper darker water
  • Fewer breaking waves
  • Sandy-coloured water extending beyond the surf zone
  • Debris or seaweed

    What to do when caught in a rip

    According to Beachsafe, if you get caught in a rip current, there are two approaches you can take, or a combination of both:

  • Relax, float and attract attention – if you are on a patrolled beach or there are surfers nearby, you can float with the current and wait for assistance. Sometimes, rip currents can also flow in a circular pattern which will return you back to the sandbank where you can stand up
  • Escape the rip current, by swimming parallel to the beach towards the breaking waves

    Beachsafe adds that the best approach is to be educated about rips and how to spot them, and avoid danger by swimming between the red and yellow flags at all times.