Liquid Lines

Talking Water Temp, Again and Again.

Why Water Temp Is Such a Big Topic, Impeding Sand
By JON COEN | Apr 11, 2018
Photo by: Jon Peterson Shawn Casey, a photographer and surfer, finds the sweet spot in a March swell. You better believe water temp is always a hot topic, no matter how cold it gets.

If there is one very important matter that gets plenty of ink in these Liquid Lines it’s the temperature of the ocean. And sometimes I have to wonder why I spend so much time writing about the water temp. In fact, I thought about it on Saturday morning, as I was cleaning out my spice cabinet, marrying little canisters of red pepper flakes, completely unmotivated to be outside.

And I can’t help but think that if I were writing this column from, say, Orange County, Calif., I wouldn’t have much need to write about the water temp as frequently as I do now. In fact, I saw on Facebook that legendary surfer Corky Carroll, who writes a surfing column on the West Coast, was looking for things to write about.

In Southern California, or “So Cal” as people like to call it (I loathe those people), they wear a 3-mil wetsuit in the winter. Sometimes they wear it in the summer. On an average year, the ocean will get down to a frosty 58 degrees. Makes you just shiver. And by August, that water will warm up to a balmy 68. That’s a 10-degree water swing all year.

Compare that to LBI. Just a few short months ago, the bay froze and then the ice floes scooted out the inlet and into our breaks. We can’t really get a good reading on that water, but saltwater freezes at 28.5 degrees, and the inside was slush. Conservatively speaking, there were some sessions surfed around the 32 range this winter, and a few solid weeks where it was 35 miserable degrees. Now think back. Last summer the ocean warmed up to the high 70s and stayed there for almost two months. It was 78 almost into October. And if you think back to the summer of 2016, it almost hit 80. So even if we assume that the most brutal winters and the most tropical of summers are outliers, we have a total swing of about 40 degrees.

Until last year, we had a very good tool for easy water temps in the USGS 01409125 Weather Station just inside Barnegat Inlet. It’s a tide gauge, but it used to give an online temperature reading. It was pretty cool to nerd out on, as it gave a graph of temp swings over the last few days, showing the water coming out of the bay (always far warmer in the spring and summer) and the cooler water running in from the ocean.

But alas, it’s been dismantled. Now we have to rely on the NOAA readings, which I don’t doubt are accurate, but they don’t have an LBI gauge, just Atlantic City and Sandy Hook. When it comes to water temp, we do have something of a microclimate here. Or you can throw a thermometer into the ocean on a surf rod.

We are a wetsuit rep’s dream come true. Many of us have 6-mil hooded wetsuits, 7-mil boots and 5-mil lobster claw gloves. To surf year ’round, you need a minimum of a 5-mil wetsuit with proper accessories. We also have 4-mil wetsuits, which we wear an awful lot of the year, specifically November and December and April into May. And there’s a very good chance of wearing your hood until a few weeks before Memorial Day. Then we have 3-mil wetsuits that we wear coming out and going into summer. And when we get a good, hard south wind in June or July, it’s not uncommon for everyone to be wearing a 3/2.

Upwelling is a whole other nuanced issue. There are times in July where the water can go from 55 to 70 in the same week. That’s a greater swing than Trestles has all year.

And then we have short-sleeve fullsuits and long-sleeve springsuits, which are pretty much interchangeable. Then, of course, we have trunks. And after going through all the rubber mentioned above, we are damn happy to simply wear a pair of shorts in the water. But we have to have all of that to pursue surfing in the mid-Atlantic. And if you don’t – and I’m not saying this in a condescending tone – if you’re not surfing in the snow and then next to a crowded swimming area within the same six-month period, you’re not really getting the full New Jersey surf experience.

But whether you surf year ’round or have never been on a surfboard, the water temperature here has a profound effect on everything. Especially this time of year when the frigid ocean can keep the Island feeling so – and this is a very scientific term – bleeeecchhh.

Water molecules are closer together than air molecules; therefore, they maintain heat and cold better. It takes the ocean a lot longer to warm up in the spring and summer, and that’s why the mainland can be 25 degrees warmer than the beach. As I wrote a few weeks back, if you’re on the fence between a hike at Wells Mills and a drive over to the beach, that Penn’s Hill trail sounds pretty good.

On the other hand, the ocean certainly keeps LBI at a nice temp when the rest of the state hits that summer swelter. And there’s that phenomenon of when the ocean stays warm into the fall when the summer folks have left. I think the scientific term is nirvana.

And if you look through a tourism perspective, it’s pretty obvious. Late June, after kids are out of school, and the first week or so of July are a bit cheaper to rent in the summer. Why do things get expensive in August? Because people know they’re going to come down and be able to jump in a nice, warm ocean.

I might go so far as to argue that the mid-Atlantic has the greatest water temp swings in the world. Is there anywhere else that goes from fully frozen to toasty tropical? I don’t know that there is.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that water temp really is a driving force in these lines. First because we’re always dealing with the effects and second because it has shaped so much of New Jersey surfing and coastal life.

The next few weeks the water temperature is going to become really important. Pretty soon, it’s going to bring migratory fish through. It’s also going to mean we can start downgrading what we’re wearing in the water. It’s going to dictate when we can stop wearing full Carhartt suits to check the mail. All these milestones are very important to life on a sandbar.

And since we’re talking about it, the ocean is right around 43. That’s colder than average for this time of year. But even if the weather pattern changes (like, even if it stops snowing by May), the ocean temp won’t make any giant leaps. Look for north winds to bump it up a bit and south winds to cool it off. This time of the year is pretty well known for south winds.

But we can count on a net gain of about two degrees per week. That means not exactly 45 by next week and 47 by the week after. But overall, by mid-May, it should be 53. (We hope.)

And yes, believe it or not, you will be in the ocean again in July, with nothing but your trunks or a bikini.

Have faith.


We actually don’t have a nor’easter to report on this week after over a month-long barrage of the famous storms. If you’re still seeing those giant left tubes on Instagram, those are just the ones that the photogs were holding for magazines until they realized there aren’t any surf magazines left to run them. I joke, but for real, we haven’t had the significant storms a la March to this point.

We have had swells, just not nor’easters. And they haven’t been nearly as good, which is somewhat a result of screwy seasonal conditions. The most recent front came through on Friday, quietly building a little waist- to head-high swell. Saturday morning, however, was marred with north/northwest winds. The size was there, but the wind was less than perfect, and the tide was pretty drained.

When the tide did come in and the wind died, there was still that cross chop from the earlier northerly wind, making for mostly closeouts. It may have looked clean from the beach, but it had that sawtooth effect that makes the takeoff nearly impossible. By Sunday morning, the wind was howling from the north-northwest, and there was little more than a northerly bump. Without the burger joints and general stores opening, the surf conditions coupled with the general cold could have made it one of the more depressing weekends in recent history.

We may have some medium-sized surf with variable winds here in the middle of the week, but that’s never a very solid forecast. If it was summer and didn’t need the full-rubber commitment, it might sound a little better. But I’m not seeing much to be excited for.

MR SANDMAN: Let’s preface this part of the column with this thought: Without beach replenishment projects, Holgate might be listed with Tucker’s Island, a former settlement now gone to time and tide. I firmly believe that had we not had sand pumped in the last few years, some part of the south end of LBI would be gone, and I don’t just mean the Forsythe Refuge. Point being these projects are not a useless waste of money.

Granted, the most recent south end project didn’t last five minutes. But that sand is in the system to some extent and will buy us a little more geological time of island living. Just some perspective: The current Republican president doesn’t believe in climate change, and therefore the connection to sea level rise or stronger storms. However, four Republican mayors on LBI will do anything to get these projects to save us from sea level rise and stronger storms. I’m told sand and politics are quite the mix.

This won’t be the most welcome news in the world, but there are three more beachfill projects on the immediate docket. And I’m going to predict that at least one of them will run into summer, making residents and visitors to some part of LBI not very happy.

Folks are not into beachfilll, despite the fact that the end of Green Street in Tuckerton might be oceanfront without it, because the immediate beach profile is so bad for surfing, swimming and general beachgoing. The new sand creates a berm that covers the sandbar, making a steep drop-off. Instead of that nice sloping beach profile and sugar sand, it’s a football field of shells and pebbles. And as they run out of good sand deposits offshore, the sand can be gray or even black. And despite temporary post-fill, post-nor’easter sandbars, the surf quality overall is worse than before these projects started 10 years ago, thanks to burying the jetties. We have more closeouts than ever.

But, as I’ve said many times, it’s a necessary evil. Note that these rounds of replenishment are “storm damage” projects that the towns qualify for and are all federally funded.

Weeks Marine has started in Brant Beach and should be done by the end of April. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers public affairs office, they will do Harvey Cedars next and finish in Surf City. The projected date is the end of May. This is not ideal timing, but I’ll be the first to say I don’t know the best time of year for beach replenishment.

How do you schedule evil, even when it’s necessary? Do you pump in January, before five nor’easters, so the sand erodes right off the beach, leaving the Cliffs of Holgate? Or do you pump right before summer so the sand sticks around, to the dismay of the beachgoing public?

We’re getting into a time of year with far less active weather. Don’t get me wrong, our weather will be actively laughing at us right up to the first day of summer, but the storms and wave action on average back off by this time of year. That means the sand will stay where it is.

Our sandbars seem to bounce back a lot sooner than they did in the past, but burying them before summer is not ideal. The best-case scenario is that Weeks Marine actually does finish up in May, but even that leaves Surf City and possibly Harvey Cedars with that awful post-replenishment beach.

A worse-case scenario is that they run into June. Let me tell you how happy folks are when they get down here, grab the key to their weekly rental, throw on their swimwear, go running up to the beach and find it’s closed. The worst case is that it runs through July 4.

Now, the beachfill folks do a good job of leaving most of the beach open, closing only 100 feet at a time. But even if you’re on the spot that got completed three days ago, it’s not anyone’s ideal beach. And I confirmed that they are pumping the entirety of both towns.

From a surfing point of view, it’s a disaster. We see far more surfers in the summer, families that have waited through the brutal winter just to paddle out to beloved LBI sandbars, only to find that it’s perpetual high tide. Occasionally a sandbar will form just off the beach, but that takes some luck. It’s cool that Surf City is trying out surfing outside the flags through town, but there may not be a wave to surf. Then you get into the fact that people have to travel from one town to another to surf and the issue of different badges. Throw in the machinery, the noise and the eradication of a sandbar, and beach replenishment is the bummer of summer.

But then again, so is LBI washing into the Atlantic.

COMING UP: Well, LBI is finally starting to turn the corner and look a little more like spring.

Kidding. It’s not. This is the lovely season known as “late winter,” and it can kiss my butt, and yours. The tiny burst of yellow forsythia is barely anything to get excited about. The air temp was 31 on Monday morning. This may be one of those years where we barely hit 60 in April.

The events calendar pretty much reflects that, which is good in a way. It always looks a little silly when we start pushing summer events in April and it winds up being a blustery, nasty day. The Chegg opens April 19, which is certainly something of a mark of spring.

This weekend is the Ship Bottom Sprint for Life. You don’t have to be Usian Bolt to run a 5K.

Beyond that, Alliance for a Living Ocean will work with Clean Ocean Action on its statewide Spring Beach Sweeps on April 21. This year’s meeting will be at Wally’s in Surf City, starting at 9 a.m. Pop in and pick up your cleaning supplies and free coffee, and fill your water bottle for the day. Then get out there and make our beaches shine.

April 22 is Earth Day. Interesting times we live in. The U.S. is still the largest carbon polluter in the world. but our consciousness does seem to be growing despite an administration that would eat the last great blue heron for breakfast.

Anyway, be mindful. And hold out for the water to get warmer.

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