Alongshore variation in the rip current hazard at Pensacola Beach, Florida

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Natural Hazards





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Coastal hazards, Drownings, Rip current

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Many drowning and near drownings at Pensacola Beach, Florida are attributed to rip currents, the strong seaward-flowing currents that extend from the shoreline to the line of breakers and sometimes beyond. While surf forecasts assume that the rip hazard is uniform alongshore and that the (erosion) rips are ephemeral features, evidence is presented to suggest that the rip hazard at Pensacola Beach is not uniform alongshore. Rather the rip current "hotspots" develop as a consequence of an alongshore variation in the surf similarity parameter and nearshore state on the order of ~1,450 m. The variation is forced by transverse ridges on the inner shelf that force wave refraction and focusing at the ridge crests. This creates a more dissipative, rhythmic bar and beach morphology at the ridges and rougher surf. Between ridges, where wave heights and periods are smaller and the outermost bar is forced closer to the shoreline, the nearshore is in a (more reflective) bar and rip state during red flag conditions. Drownings between 2000 and 2009 are shown to be clustered between transverse ridges and in the years following a hurricane or tropical storm (2000-2003 and 2005-2008) when the bar and rip morphology first develops as the shore face recovers. This continues until the innermost bar attaches to the beach face unless the bar system is reset by another tropical storm or hurricane. It is argued that the rip hazard is dependent on the alongshore covariation of the environmental forcing with the individual and group behavior in both time and space, even on what appears to be a relatively uniform beach environment. © 2010 Springer Science+Business Media B.V.