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The Giant Misconception About Oregon Coast Sea Foam: Actually Awesome

Published 04/18/2017 at 8:43 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

The Giant Misconception About Oregon Coast Sea Foam: Actually Awesome

(Oregon Coast) – One of the Oregon coast's most sublime pleasures is when gobs of sea foam start carousing around the beach, drifting in giant packs that almost resemble snow, or maybe even flying about in giant clumps during a windstorm. Even the simple sudsy bubbles of white at the tips of each incoming wave has a visual poetry about it.

Unless, it seems, you're one of a startling many that view this with some alarm. A reaction to sea foam that puzzles plenty of beach regulars and Oregonians is that quite a few find sea foam a sign of something bad. It seems it's just a lack of basic knowledge.

It may look messy or even dirty, but it's exactly the opposite: quite clean.

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Indeed, sea foam is a very, very good thing. In fact, the more the merrier. Even when sea foam gets oddly brown or downright muddy-looking, it's still a positive sign. Keith Chandler, manager of Seaside Aquarium, told Oregon Coast Beach Connection several years ago it's a clear indication of a healthy ocean.

“It’s a good thing,” said Chandler. “It’s a healthy thing."

Visitors to the coast – both from out of state and in-state – have this ongoing misconception that sea foam is a sign of pollution, or maybe an irritant of some kind. It's difficult to pin down the huge array of misgivings as they are extremely varied. But it's incorrect.

While you sometimes feel a little sticky or gooey after playing with it or touching it, that's actually just the effect of ocean salt water and not the sea foam, per se.

Sea foam essentially comes from the way air bubbles are made by sea water and the tiny skeletons of microscopic organisms called phytoplankton. There are many different types of phytoplankon, but the most common around these parts is diatoms – and there are several varieties of those. There are also dinoflaggelates, which when alive create other interesting effects. More on that later.

Phytoplankton are the basic root of the food chain in the ocean. Most everything feeds on that, allowing smaller animals to thrive so they can be eaten. They are about 100 micrometers long – or 1000 times the size of a virus. Still, they’re not visible with the naked eye.

If there's lots of phytoplankton, it means the ocean is thriving from the bottom of the food chain on up. Phytoplankton are born in what is called a “bloom,” since they're essentially tiny plants. When you have a huge mounds of the stuff drifting around the tide line on calm days, it usually means there's been a heavy bloom of them, probably mixed with some high wind event a day or so before.

Wind churns up the ocean and accentuates the bubble-making process that the tiny skeletons create. It's a process called viscosity: the way the skeletons change the surface tension on the water.

“It's very much the way that soap bubbles are created by changing surface tension and allowing air to be trapped between layers of fluid,” said Dr. William Hanshumaker, with the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.

There are times the ocean gets a dirty brown look to it, with the ocean caps tinged that way – or as in the case of the north Oregon coast around Seaside – it even gets brown and sludgy. (Pictured here). This, too, is simply more phytoplankton, specifically a type of diatom that is prone to tinging things that color. Again, it's a healthy sign.

This alarms visitors, so Seaside has plenty of signs explaining it. In this area, there are enormous amounts of nutrients like nitrates, which allows the diatom populations to simply explode.

“That’s why it’s so brown here on these beaches," said Chandler. " They’re living off the nitrates and phosphates coming down from the Columbia. That creates these huge blooms of diatoms. They’ve got a lot of stuff to feed off. It’s like gravy to these diatoms. Or like pudding to them.”

Another clear example of why it's good is that Clatsop Beach - from Seaside northward - is where about 80 percent of the razor clam population lives on the coast. That's because of the nutrients that also feed the little phyto's.

There are rare times on the central coast that mudflows from storms upstream will cause some browning around Lincoln City. That's fairly rare.

Dinoflagellates really create the most spectacular sight, and when sea foam really goes bonkers in those large bloom events your chances of seeing these and their stunning glowing effect increases. They are bioluminescent phytoplankton – meaning they glow like fireflies. A common misnomer is calling it “phosphorescence,” but that's completely incorrect.

You can on rare occasions see what's called “glowing sand” at night, around the wet sand at the tide line. Scuffle your feet backwards and you'll see tiny bluish, green sparks. They can resemble a briefly glowing glowstick, or even a small galaxy erupting if you stomp in pools of sea water that have been around awhile. More on Oregon Coast Sea Foam

Glowing sands are actually present a little over half the time on the coast, but they're really faint and it takes a trained eye to spot them. Oregon Coast Hotels for this - Where to eat - Map and Virtual Tour






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