The finding could ultimately cause researchers to re-examine ideas about beach erosion and the repair of beaches that are damaged by tropical storms. "It could just be that the physics of the system is a little different than we thought," said Thomas Lippmann, a research scientist in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a researcher with the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University.
When the Ohio State researchers utilized data collected by collaborators at Duck, NC, to calibrate a new remote sensing method for studying ocean currents, they expected to find some complex wave flow patterns in the water.
Researchers have long known that the surf contains many different currents that interact to affect how sand washes away from a beach. That's why mitigating beach erosion is so difficult, Lippmann said.
But their close examination of the oscillating water flow at different depths revealed a surprisingly intricate system of patterns, with surface currents not always in sync with the bottom flow.
As Lippmann reported his team's early results Monday at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, he declined to speculate on what causes the strange flow patterns.
For instance, they found regions where the water near the surface was rotating in one direction -- say, clockwise -- and the water just a meter or two below it was rotating counterclockwise.
Taken together, the unusual patterns make for a more complicated picture of water movement than most researchers suspected, Lippmann said.
Scientists may have to take the new findings into account when they design computer models of beach erosion, nearshore circulation, or water quality.