Beachgoers and fishermen are reaping one of the rewards of a year without a winter: Warm ocean and back bay water temperatures.
Fifteen straight months of above-average air temperatures in South Jersey have the water temperatures running higher than normal for this time of year. The warm water is likely to linger, experts say, although several beach projects will make it more difficult to enjoy for several more weeks.
“When you’re that much above average for winter, it’s that much easier to warm things up further in spring,” said state climatologist David Robinson. “It’s like starting on the second floor. It’s that much easier to climb up to the third.”
The ocean temperature reached 60 degrees for the first time May 1, six degrees above average for the first half of May, before cooling off again. The temperature then reached nearly 63 degrees Tuesday off Atlantic City, or nine degrees above average for the first half of May and five degrees above average for the second half. Those peaks come with the average daily temperature in the upper 50s, still several degrees above normal. The National Oceanographic Data Center uses separate averages for the first and second halves of the months April through October.
At the recording station at Cape May, which is influenced by the warmer Delaware Bay water, temperatures peaked at 71 degrees on Wednesday, 15 degrees above average for the first half of the month and nine degrees above average for the second.
“A 10-degree anomaly in the ocean is huge,” Robinson said. “A couple degrees is comparable to a much larger difference over land because the ocean tends to moderate things.”
Weather patterns this past winter rarely allowed cold air to descend from the Arctic, or stay for long when it did, Robinson said, and the ocean never had the chance to cool. Consequently, ocean temperatures never dipped below 38 degrees and quickly reheated when spring arrived. For the water, he said, it’s almost as if winter never happened.
Back bays — which warm and cool faster than the ocean because of their shallow depth — never froze this past winter. Water temperature during the winter rarely dropped below 40, according to U.S. Geological Survey tidal gauge records in Avalon and Ocean City. That and an unusually warm March were likely the cause of temperatures rising much earlier than usual, reaching into the low 60s in the middle of April.
As of Friday, the temperature in Delaware Bay near Cape May already was in the low 70s during the heat of the day and the ocean near Atlantic City was in the upper 60s, according to the USGS gauges.
Beach weather may be here, but not all beaches will be ready. On Thursday, a barge offshore was pumping sand to waiting backhoes on the beach at Newport Avenue in Ventnor. Dune crossings were blocked by yellow caution tape. In other sections, a rusting pipe snaked across the beach.
Philip DiFabio, 77, of Ventnor, said it’s a shame to close the beaches for replenishing just as people are coming out to enjoy the nice weather.
“It’s unfortunate for the people, but it should be done,” he said. “Better late than never.”
Not everyone was disturbed by the $18 million U.S. Army Corps of Engineers replenishment project, which will close 5.1 miles of beach in Ventnor and Atlantic City at various times this summer.
“The sand pumping doesn’t stop us from sitting on the beach,” said Kellie Gamboll, 38, of Ridley, Pa., who was sitting with Ryan O’Malley, 43, a few hundred yards north of rumbling backhoes near the Ventnor Pier.
“The pipe isn’t the most beautiful thing to look at, but I don’t mind,” O’Malley added.
O’Malley said the only change he’s made because of the beach construction is where he chooses to surf.
“I wouldn’t surf upstream of the runoff,” he said. “They’re sucking all that stuff off the bottom of the ocean — you don’t know what you’re getting.”
Beach work in Ventnor and Atlantic City is “about two-thirds complete,” a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman said Friday.
The $18 million project is adding 300,000 cubic yards of sand. The project is 65 percent funded by $11.7 million from the federal government, 25 percent funded by $4.5 million from the state Department of Environmental Protection, and 10 percent funded by $1.8 million from the municipalities.
In Ventnor, work is proceeding north to south, Steve Rochette said. Work in Atlantic City is being done near the Central Pier area near St. James Place, he said.
Revel Beach, from Delaware to Vermont avenues in Atlantic City, is also closed due to a separate jetty-reinforcement project that was expected to be complete by Memorial Day but will now continue into the summer.
While some possible consequences of the warmer water — such as algae blooms or lingering tropical storms — likely won’t materialize until later in the summer, anglers have already begun to notice changes.
Warm water in the back bays and tidal flats have been a boon to the minnow harvest this year, said Jim Moran, owner of Moran’s Dockside in Avalon.
“This was the first year I can say the bait minnows they use for flounder were available big-time at the beginning of flounder season” on May 6, he said. “In past years, the water was too cold for them to be around.”
Andy Grossman, who owns Riptide Bait and Tackle in Brigantine, said striper season started about two weeks early.
“It’s nice, after waiting all winter, to get an early shot at fishing,” he said. “It seems to be good for everybody, both the business guys and the fishermen.”
Some contend the fishing never completely let up. Margaret O’Brien, who owns Jingles Bait and Tackle in Beach Haven, Ocean County, said sand eels hung around until January, while a warm spell in March brought fishermen back out.
“Now, you have pods of warm and cold water, so things have leveled off a bit,” she said.
Given the overall warming trend of recent years, Robinson said, people should be prepared for even warmer temperatures. Day-to-day temperatures, however, can be more difficult to predict, he said.
“The irony is that when it gets really hot (over land), offshore winds can actually push the water offshore,” he said. “The warm water gets replaced by water from deeper down, which is cooler.”
Staff writer Steven Lemongello contributed to this report.
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