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01/02/2014

If the bushfires don't get you, the rip tides just might

Dreamstime_l_22408272Ocean rip tides are Australia's most dangerous natural hazard. According to some estimates, more than 17,000 are active on Australia's coasts – such as the New South Wales coast, pictured here – at any given time. (Photo credit: Jim Byers/ Toronto Star.)

If they had to identify the deadliest natural danger in Australia, a lot of people would probably respond in much the same way: first, with a joke (“Mel Gibson”) and then with a serious reply (“wildfires”).

And they would be wrong on both counts.

The deadliest natural danger in Australia is rip tides.

According to a recent BBC report from Sydney, approximately 21 people in Australia lose their lives each year after being swept away by these powerful ocean currents.

The report states that the total number of deaths caused annually by rip tides in Australia outnumbers “the combined average annual toll for bushfires, cyclones, floods, and shark attacks.”

(Apparently, the BBC report did not factor Mel Gibson into the equation.)

We should probably withdraw that last parenthetic remark, because rip tides are not in the least bit funny.

What they are is the result of some pretty irresistible physics. In other words, what comes in must go out.

It’s true of money, and it is also true of salt water.

Propelled by waves to the shore, incoming water has to go somewhere. More often than not, it reverses course by opening largely invisible channels through the incoming water, enabling it to rush back out to sea. These reverse tides are like rivers and, like rivers, they can be extremely potent and fast. They are also numerous. A lifeguard quoted by the BBC, estimates there are 11,000 beaches on the Australian mainland – and 17,500 rip tides active at any given moment.

Most people caught in a rip tide do exactly the wrong thing. They try to out-swim it, leaving themselves (a) exhausted and (b) panicked – an often fatal combination.

According to the experts, swimmers being swept away by a rip tide should float with the current, try to stay calm, and do their best to wave their arms, signaling for help.

(Also: watch out for sharks.)

Oakland Ross is a foreign affairs reporter for the Toronto Star.

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