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OPINION: Climate change reflected in rip currents at Queens, Brooklyn beaches

August 13, 2018 By Raanan Geberer Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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If you take the trouble to read international news, you’ll see alarming reports of record-breaking temperatures all over the world. In early July, temperatures of 124 were reported in Algeria. Denver tied its record of 105 degrees in June. Montreal saw its highest temperature in history, 97, on July 2. And on July 23, the mercury in Kumagaya, about 40 miles northwest of Tokyo, soared to 106 degrees.

Yet, if we want to see evidence of climate change (or, as some would call it, global warming), we don’t have to go that far. We can see it at the beaches in Brooklyn and Queens, not to mention Nassau and Suffolk counties further out on Long Island.

The problem is rip currents — fast-moving, narrow channels of water that can drag swimmers out to sea. While climate change is not increasing their incidence, it is making them more unpredictable, according to Dr. Simon Boxall, an oceanographer at the University of Southampton (U.K).

“If you get big storms, the storm can change the topography completely, they can move a sand bar a kilometer overnight. And so, because you get these moving sandbars every time you get a big storm, it means predicting where the rip currents are likely to take place becomes very difficult,” quotes Boxall as saying.

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A blog belonging to another site, My Pool Signs, says that the rise in sea level is making some parts of the beach more susceptible to rip currents, and that local lifeguards are reporting more intense rip currents in places where sea levels have risen more dramatically.

One “hot spot” that may be vulnerable to rip currents is Far Rockaway. “It’s completely open to the Atlantic Ocean, and it has very strong rip currents,” lifeguard Janet Fash told the Daily News in 2009. The beach, stretching from Breezy Point to the East Rockaway inlet, claimed the lives of six swimmers that summer.

In September 2017, more than 100 rescuers from FDNY and NYPD undertook an extensive search for a missing swimmer on a day after official swimming season, when there were no lifeguards on duty. “It’s Rockaway. You always have rip currents and rip tides. This is something that you’re used to,” Liz Garrity, a local resident, told ABC7 News at the time.

What’s true for Far Rockaway is also true for Long Beach, right on the other side of the Nassau-Queens border and also on a peninsula. Because the LIRR runs trains there from its Atlantic Terminal, Long Beach is a favorite with many Brooklynites. During the past few years, I have tried to go to there several times, and at least half of those times, lifeguards ordered everybody out of the water due to treacherous rip currents.

While Coney Island is less exposed to ocean currents than Rockaway and the Long Island beaches, in 2008 a 10-year-old girl, Akria Johnson, was swept out to sea while swimming with her cousin there and drowned. Strong rip currents were reported all over the city and into Long Island, and seven people were missing or presumed dead that weekend.

Experts give several tips about surviving in a rip current. Among them are: If you feel a strong pull in shallow water, get out as fast as possible; swim parallel to shore to escape the current if you are in deeper water; call for help as soon as possible if you aren’t a good swimmer; conserve your energy, resting when necessary, and; once you are out of the rip current, swim diagonally toward shore to minimize the chances that you’ll be caught by the rip current again.

There’s little doubt that rip currents are getting stronger. They’re especially dangerous during hurricane season, even when the storms are hundreds of miles away. For example, in mid-July of this year, Hurricane Chris didn’t hit the New York area directly, but it still created dangerous currents along the Jersey Shore, the South Shore of Long Island and, of course, the Brooklyn and Queens beaches.

Climate change is real and so are rip currents, but we don’t want to dissuade anyone from going into the water and having a good time. Just pay attention to lifeguards and any warnings you might hear.

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