Storms create walls in the sand

NEWPORT BEACH — Strong winds and rainstorms have caused beach erosion along some stretches of the Balboa Peninsula, creating steep walls of sand as high as 6 feet — a reminder that winter is on its way.

Like the snow in the Midwest or the heavy rains of the Pacific Northwest, the erosion is an annual phenomenon that occurs in varying degrees in Southern California, depending on the size of the storm and surf.

It can all be traced to as far north as Alaska's Aleutian Islands, where storms start, then move south, bringing strong winds and equally strong surf with them, Newport Beach lifeguards say.

Ultimately, the storms create waves that hit beaches at an angle in what is known as a longshore current, or drift.

Egged on often by a strong east-west currents that's produced by a southerly wind, the waves begin to chew away at many of the south-facing beaches, as is the case with the Balboa Peninsula.

The end result is that tons of sand is picked up and redeposited on the beach — or pulled out to sea.

While the edges of the sand walls may seem inviting, they can be dangerous.

That was the case a few weeks ago when a 9-year-old boy who'd been playing with his friend in the sand at 54th Street in West Newport Beach. The pair managed to burrow a 10-foot-long hole that was nearly three feet around.

"What some people don't understand is that when you add water to the sand, it can get wet and heavy, and then it's hard to get off of you if you get stuck," said Newport Beach Fire Division Chief Paul Matheis.

Newport Beach lifeguard Capt. Josh van Egmond just happened to be patrolling by the area at sunset. He spotted the two boys out on the sand with nobody around. He quickly called for backup, but ultimately pulled the boy out of the tunnel just as it was collapsing.

"We dodged a bullet with that one," said van Egmond, 46, who had just received sand entrapment training the day before the Nov. 11 incident. "I managed to grab a hold of his foot and yank him out."

"You can never be too careful. Years ago, back in the '80s, there were a couple of kids who died doing the same thing — at 54th Street," van Egmond added.

And that's just in West Newport Beach, where the sand walls, also known as berms, aren't nearly as high as they are on the Balboa Peninsula, particularly between the Balboa Pier and the Wedge, lifeguards say.

"We discourage burrowing in the sand 100%," said Brian O'Rourke, a lifeguard captain. "These are not manmade walls. These are naturally occurring sand walls, due to the ocean conditions and the ocean environment. I've seen some ledges as high as eight feet."

O'Rourke said the sizes of the walls vary from year to year and, without question, mostly occur in the winter months.

"Just walk down any beach up and down the California coast, and you'll see them," he said. "The sizes of them depend on the storm and the surf."

During January's heavy rainstorms, so much erosion occurred that during the summer some beachgoers "could walk halfway out to the Balboa Pier," said Al Irwin, a 93-year-old lifelong resident of the Peninsula.

"Not since 1926 was the erosion that bad," said Irwin, who remembers the rainstorms as a child. "The sand was washed away from the piles that the houses were built on. I remember being able to see them."

According to O'Rourke, the walls of sand are usually higher and steeper when the waves are breaking closer to shore.

"Remember," he said, "a wave has to break at half its length. In other words, a six-foot wave needs to break at least in three feet of water, and what we're getting is some waves either breaking on shore or in shallow water."

Another way of looking at it would be comparing the strong currents with those of a river, O'Rourke said.

"Just picture a river running parallel to shore, and that's what's happening during a longshore current," he said. "If you were to jump into the water, you'd move right down the shoreline, just like the sand is doing."

In the 1950s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a series of jetties in between 28th Street and 56th Street to keep overflowing water at bay and prevent flooding to nearby houses in West Newport Beach, O'Rourke said.

"If we didn't have those rocks, there's a good chance some of those houses would be flooded," he said.

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