(July 19, 2013) Ocean City’s beachgoers have been braving a cooler-than-average ocean all summer, but they might benefit from the summer swelter that blew in this week.
As of Tuesday, a Bermuda high bringing hot, hazy weather was blowing warm water from the Gulf Stream inshore, floating temperatures at the inlet into the upper 70s. Through the first week in July, the water had been 8-10 degrees colder than last year, averaging 68 degrees compared to 75 degrees in 2012, according to Ocean City Beach Patrol statistics.
The rush of warm water could fade, however, if the muggy weather draws a summer storm.
“We call it upwelling and it’s actually very predictable if you know the winds,” said Physical Oceanographer Bill Boicourt of the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science.
Upwelling here is driven by southwesterly winds pushing warm surface water offshore, allowing cooler, heavier bottom water to “well up” to the surface, Boicourt said.
“The offshore stratification — warm water over cold water — is actually pretty prevalent this time of year,” he said, explaining that the “blanket” of sun-heated surface water keeps light from heating the ocean’s lower layers.
Without measuring the winds, all signs point to persistent southwesterlies driving the cooler temperatures in the early summer, Boicourt said. In contrast, northeast winds carry warm surface water to shore.
Charter Boat Capt. Rob Skillman confirmed that warm water was blowing offshore — as close as 10 miles, where the surface water temperature jumped to around 75 degrees Monday, he said.
“It’s such a large body of water that a couple days of sunlight doesn’t warm it up a lot,” said Ocean City Beach Patrol Capt. Butch Arbin. Unlike past upwelling events he’s seen, which caused temperatures to dip suddenly, this year’s consistently kept ocean temperatures below average near shore.
Chilly waters didn’t kept most beachgoers from taking a dip during their holiday, though.
“It’s not that bad at all,” said Eric Smookler, of Severna Park, from the beach at 82nd Street Monday.
“Once you get through the initial shock, it’s alright,” said fellow beachgoer Norm Manley, of Palm Coast, Fla.
The cold water has had at least one positive effect as people have taken shorter swims, reducing the number of incidents to which the Beach Patrol has needed to respond, Arbin said.
Beach patrol rescues from June 17 to July 7 totaled 2,139 this year, compared to more than 2,500 rescues over the same period in 2012.
“We see more things going on. More people playing ball on the beach, more people digging holes on the beach, more people doing things other than swimming,” Arbin said.
The town’s foot traffic tends to peak after the Fourth of July, and with the heat index expected to top 100 degrees this weekend, Arbin predicted visitors will “come enjoy the refreshing water,” even if it drops back to a bracing 68 degrees.