Wednesday | July 27, 2016
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A wave of change Weather service updates surf warnings

Hawaii high surf conditions will now be accompanied by more strongly worded messages to communicate the hazards and implications beachgoers and ocean lovers may face.

With help from ocean safety officials statewide, the National Weather Service’s Honolulu Forecast Office has created enhanced safety messages designed to increase awareness of dangers associated with seasonal high surf episodes. The new messages will likely debut today.

Millions of people annually recreate in the beach areas and surf zones surrounding Hawaii. High surf, dangerous shore break and strong currents are just a few of the potential hazards they may face. Watching over visitors is an ongoing and significant task, according to the National Weather Service.

The National Weather Service provides daily surf forecasts for Oahu, as well as high surf warning and advisory products for the entire state.

“Messaging is just so important,” said Jim Howe, operations director for Oahu Ocean Safety, “while our lifeguards do everything within their power to protect beachgoers, there really is no substitute for folks understanding ocean hazards before they enter the water.”

Each enhanced message will categorize the threat as extreme, very high, high, or moderate. The new messages will also have information explaining the specific threats and preparedness.

For example, messages labeled extreme, very high and high will include the phrase, “Anyone entering the water could face significant injury or death.” In an attempt to detail significance of an expected event, the messages often explain how the conditions will specifically affect swimmers, surfers, beachgoers, boaters, harbors, coastal properties, roads or other infrastructure. Advice like “know your limits” and listening to lifeguards or ocean safety officials will also be given.

Wave heights for the Big Island will be chosen using forecaster discretion and given with expertise from local ocean safety and Civil Defense officials, said Mike Cantin, warning coordination meteorologist for the Honolulu Forecast Office. In general, government agencies, including the National Weather Service, measure surf height by the face of the wave. Weather service forecasts nationwide are based on the international standard of full-face value, measured from the trough in front of the wave to the top of the wave crest, he added.

However, waves are not always measured this way. Some still measure waves the “Hawaiian way,” which is from the back of the wave, about half the face’s height.

The criteria for issuing high surf warnings and advisories remains unchanged. Advisories are issued when caution should be heeded for a notable hazard while warnings are issued when a dangerous hazard is imminent or occurring, Cantin said.

Improvements to the messaging were not spurred because of confusion, complacency or any specific incidents, Cantin said. The National Weather Service is always looking for ways to improve communication with the public. This also includes finding a better way to provide a greater understanding of what’s happening beyond the traditional recitation of the presence of big waves and rip currents, he added.

“Our goal is to get the right safety information in the hands of the public, the media and ocean safety officials to ensure everyone’s visit to our beautiful beaches is an enjoyable and safe experience,” Cantin said. “Another goal is always to reduce the number of incidents, injuries and fatalities.”