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Take a Close Look: What's Wrong with This Oregon Coast Wave?

Published 06/27/2016 at 7:31 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Take a close look at this picture of a wave in Lincoln City. Can you spot what's wrong with it?

(Oregon Coast) – Take a close look at this picture of a wave in Lincoln City. Can you spot what's wrong with it?

Hint: notice the direction.

If you guessed the wave is going the wrong way, you're right. It should be coming into shore – not outgoing. And no, the photo is not altered or flipped.

So what causes this? It's a quirky example of the science of summer on the Oregon coast.

The shot is from Lincoln City's Road's End area, taken in the summer of 2012. It's what can happen when sand levels get extremely high on the beaches, which has been happening more and more each summer in recent years in this region.

The short answer: sand levels rise so high in summer they create big sand bars on the beaches, which in turn have their own little indentations. If conditions are right and the tides hit these spots just right, the gullies fill up with sea water, and waves can bounce back. They get pushed back out in the direction of the sea, where they just dissipate into the next incoming wave or on the sand bar. .

During summertime, sand levels always rise. Oregon coast geologist Tom Horning said, it happens every year to different degrees.

“What you’re seeing is just the usual, seasonal rise in beach elevation because of the summer depositing more sand,” Horning said.

During winter, all that stormy wave action scours out sand. If you have a lot of storms, you can loose ten to twenty feet of the stuff and bedrock shows, along with some startling geological sights that have been hiding under that the whole time.


Above: incoming and outgoing waves "face off"

During summer, the calm wave action brings in more sand. And then with no storm action to take it out, it just keeps building and building.

At some beaches, the sand piles up incredibly high, causing these sand bars. If you get the right combo of sand bars, low spots and the tide pounding it just right, you'll find this wacky rarity of waves coming back across the sand bar and heading the wrong way.

You can see several photos here of how this happened in Lincoln City that year.

In one shot, you can see the incoming and outgoing waves facing off against each other. In the photo below, you can see where the water pools up.


The other interesting thing is these little wrong way-moving waves are much warmer than the incoming breakers. It feels really good, besides looking so wacky. These are tiny waves, by the way, and will not ever pose a danger. But you still need to keep an eye on sneaker waves from the usual breakers.

Where and when can you find this? It is absolutely impossible to predict. A good guess is that later in summer is your better bet, from July through September, when sand levels really have begun to do incredible things. Look for a kind of broken tidal area: giant pools of water just a bit further inland from the regular breakers, with a high spot of beach and sand between them.

Summer's high sand levels often provide other incredible sights, however. And these are easily found just about everywhere. They create a kind of faux low tide event: meaning sand levels get so high they keep the sea farther out than usual. It's as if there's an extreme low tide, but it's not.


Above: a moving gif showing the wave moving backwards

This faux low tide can grant you much easier access to places completely dangerous or inaccessible during other times of the year. For instance, earlier this month Oceanside's Maxwell Point was already getting such enormous sand levels that the point was almost perfectly accessible. You didn't always have to go through the tunnel.

Other spots to keep an eye on for this:


Devil's Punchbowl: In recent years, you could actually safely get inside the Punchbowl and the surround marine gardens areas.


Arch Cape: Sand levels kept the tide at bay enough so you could go around the point and see the arch that gave the place its name.


Hug Point: also close to Cannon Beach, the tide can get quite a distance from the old road and you walk around the outside of it. However, the interesting, funky-colored rock structures just below the road are very covered up.

Labyrinth Beaches Between Yachats and Florence: Places like Strawberry Hill, Bob Creek and Ocean Beach Wayside have plenty of dangerous spots during the rest of the year, but they can be easily explored during such sand level events. Where to stay for this - Where to eat - Map and Virtual Tour

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