Beach Pumping’s Impact On Rip Currents, Waves Discussed; Beach Patrol Captain Maintains Research Indicates No Link

Photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY – Resort officials dismissed the notion this week that there is a link between beach replenishment and swimming injuries in the ocean.

Last Thursday, The Dispatch posted to Facebook a story about a victim suffering neck and back injuries on the beach near 55th Street around 1 p.m. and being transported to PRMC in Salisbury via helicopter.
The majority of The Dispatch’s followers, as has happened in the past with reports of other rescues, voiced their opinions that beach replenishment is to be blamed for the changing dynamics of the ocean floor causing shore breaks and rip currents in higher frequencies than before.

“The surf line in Ocean City is not what it was 40 years ago when I was growing up. Back then there was always a sandbar 200 yards out from the shore … you got the nicest waves for bodysurfing, nice rollers,” posted Marty Etzel. “Now you get this ‘flop’ right at the shoreline. Is this because of beach replenishment?”

Todd Lester responded, “Absolutely. We had nice sandbars just prior to the replenishment, and now they have not only wrecked Ocean City for surfing, but have created a very dangerous situation for folks who aren’t accustomed to the ocean … rips and heavy shore breaks are definitely attributed …”

There was another water rescue last Thursday that required Maryland State Police helicopter assistance, as well as two others on Sunday in Ocean City and in Assateague. The ocean was particularly rough on Sunday and over the weekend from a passing system off the coast.

On June 25, a 69-year-old suffered a fatal neck injury while bodyboarding in the ocean. The man was revived on the beach but passed away days later at the hospital as a result of the traumatic injury. Facebook posters again pointed to last winter’s beach replenishment project for the injury.

Ocean City Beach Patrol Captain Butch Arbin said on Wednesday there has not been any kind of scientific correlation or rescue statistics that prove beach replenishment is related to an increase in rescues or neck and back injuries.

“Whenever anything happens, people ask if it relates to beach replenishment not only with shore break but also the rip current,” Arbin said. “We have been looking at this for a long time.”

Looking back to the first year the Army Corps of Engineers conducted the beach replenishment project in Ocean City in 1988, Arbin reviewed the number of neck and back injuries in the areas of the beach that were replenished and not replenished.

“Fifty percent occurred on beaches with replenishment and 50 percent occurred on beaches that had never been replenished, so that is a flip of a coin. Statistically, there is no correlation between beach replenishment and the shore break,” he said.

Arbin furthered, currently the University of Delaware through Sea Grant is conducting research and preliminary reports show there are no statistically significant correlation between beach replenishment in Delaware and injuries, and Delaware has suffered more injuries then Ocean City has, according to Arbin.

Each week the beach patrol publishes a bulletin listing the number of weekly rescues, and those numbers are compared to the same time period last year and years prior.

“Right now, we might have more rescues this past week than we did for the same week a year ago but it depends on surf conditions, wind, wave height and tide … when you look at those kind of statistics you have to consider the bigger picture, and the number of rescues so far this season are down from last year and the year before due to statistics that were released a year ago,” Arbin said.

Arbin referred to a day earlier this season when a substantial number of rip current rescues occurred, however 95 percent of those rescues took place where the beach had not been replenished.

“When we are making rip current rescues on the non-replenished beach, the only scientific correlation I can make would be that beach replenishment cut down on rip currents,” Arbin said.

Arbin explained there are two different types of rip currents in Ocean City — a barrier rip and flash rip. A barrier rip is when the water runs long and when it hits a barrier it is reflected. There are two barrier rips in Ocean City; under the pier and at the Inlet. Flash rips are created when the water comes across a sand bar, gets trapped in the trough and has to make its way back out through a low spot in the sand bar.

“If in fact the sand bar has been destroyed by beach replenishment, that wouldn’t cause more rip currents. It would have the opposite effect by the dynamics that makes a rip current,” he said. “I don’t see any correlation between any beach replenishment and the rescues and injures that we have had. The ocean is such a dynamic environment. When beach replenishment sand is put in, it just doesn’t stay there. It gets moved with the currents, such as the hurricane that came in on July 4, so the beach is going to reshape itself anyway constantly.”

Arbin added Ocean City is a barrier island, meaning it migrates or moves, so sand is constantly being moved from one side to the other.

“Beach replenishment is really our way of trying to mitigate the amount of sand being moved off of the front of Ocean City to protect property and keep a nice wide beach. Again, any correlation between that and injuries or rip currents, scientifically it is just not proven. Not that I have seen anywhere.”

The only impact City Engineer Terry McGean can remember beach replenishment having was in 1994 when the Corps formed a much steeper slope in the surf zone, although it did not result in an increase of rescues.

“I did personally see the shore line become eaten away with a sharp face right where the surf zone was, so they have not used that slope since then,” McGean said. “A lot of the comments come from surfers, but I wonder where they would surf if we didn’t have beach replenishment.”

Beach replenishment in Ocean City was last conducted this past winter. The Ocean City beaches are routinely replenished every four years with periodic emergency projects as needed following storms and other natural events.


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