Walking in the sand in Surfside Beach on an early morning in late August, vacationers Mary and Lester Ferguson weren't sure of what to make of an unidentified, bright pink object lying on the beach.
"At first we thought it was a child's big rubber toy on the beach," said Mary Ferguson of Poquoson, Va. "It looked like something you would see in the aquarium, and it was still alive. And we kept trying to throw it out, and it would float and come back in with the tide."
The couple had stumbled upon a Portuguese man-of-war, a jellyfish-like animal that is infamous for its painful sting. A man-of-war is a colony of small animals that work together and take on specialized roles to form the structure that resembles a jellyfish. Such a creature is typically found in the Atlantic Gulf Stream 40 to 50 miles off the S.C. coast, but beachgoers will likely see the man-of-war and other different kinds of jellies this year because of unusual wind patterns, said Eric Koepfler, a marine biologist at Coastal Carolina University.
"They'll come in especially if there are winds directed towards shore, and that's not real common in the summer and late fall," Koepfler said. "Unless we have a prevailing wind coming from the east, it's pretty unusual to see [jellyfish from the Gulf Stream] blown into our beaches."
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Those same wind patterns could also improve water quality and fishing conditions, Koepfler said.
Since Coastal began taking data in 2006, summer winds have blown primarily from the southwest parallel to the coastline, he said. But starting in August, winds have blown predominantly from the east directly into shore or from the north northwest out to sea. The wind patterns have held to the pattern into September so far, Koepfler said.
The eastern wind likely pushed the Gulf Stream nearer to the coast in North Carolina, where it is already far closer to shore, bringing in jellies toward land, Koepfler said. The northern wind could have then blown them south to the Grand Strand, he said.
Hurricane Earl also drove some jellyfish from the Gulf Stream to shore. Dan Abel, another CCU marine scientist, found a group of blue button jellyfish that had washed ashore around the time of the hurricane.
Unlike the man-of-war, blue buttons do not have a severe sting and are only slightly larger than a quarter, Abel said. One of his students volunteered to touch the animal and described the sting as mild, Abel said.
Man-of-war are usually responsible for a couple of severe stings in Myrtle Beach every year, said Sgt. Philip Cain, head of the Myrtle Beach Police's beach patrol. The Fergusons were not stung because they touched the man-of-war with a plastic shovel. This year has been average so far in terms of the number of jellyfish sightings and stings, Cain said. County beaches have had fewer stings this year compared to last, Sgt. Robert Kegler said.
The change in wind wouldn't necessarily bring more jellyfish, just different types, he said
The northern wind that is bringing in the jellyfish also causes a phenomenon that may improve fishing conditions, Koepfler said.
The usual southwestern wind causes a phenomenon called upwelling that drives surface water off shore, bringing bottom water toward the shore, he said. Upwelling causes depletion close to shore of oxygen that fish need. Oxygen in recent years has gotten very low from prolonged periods of upwelling, and that can hurt fishing.
"If oxygen concentrations get too low, well [fish] can die," Koepfler said.
The northwestern winds that began in mid-August produce the opposite effect, downwelling, pushing the bottom water out to sea and bringing in more oxygen-rich top water, he said. And that's good for fishermen, he said.
There's no apparent explanation for the difference in wind patterns this year, said Craig Gilman, a marine scientist who studies ocean and climate interaction at Coastal. Gilman said he would guess it's just a random weather pattern.
Winds from the north are more common in the fall, according to a 2001 report sponsored by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. It's possible that fall winds have just set in earlier this year, said Frederick Bingham in the Department of Physics and Physical Oceanography at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. But that wouldn't account for the eastern winds.
When there's a change in weather for seemingly no reason, climate change may be the cause, Abel said. The Atlantic has also seen two Category 4 hurricanes this year, which hasn't happened since 1926.
"There's no such thing, in my opinion, any more as normal weather. We're in the screwy dynamic of climate change, and things are going to be disrupted," he said. "I'm not going to tell you that's climate change-related, but when all these unlikely events start happening, you gotta wonder."