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Encounters with the Science of Sunsets, Spring and Foam on Oregon Coast

Published 06/18/22 at 5:35 PM PST
By Andre' GW Hagestedt

Encounters with the Science of Sunsets, Spring and Foam on Oregon Coast

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(Manzanita, Oregon) – It's one of those Oregon coast jaunts that goes from serene and simple beauty to downright surreal. On this particular photographic run up and down the beaches, mostly focusing on Manzanita, it's proof that spring can indeed spring the biggest surprises on you. Among those revelations: knowing the science of what's happening really adds to the experience. (All photos Andre' GW Hagestedt / Oregon Coast Beach Connection)

I've known for ages that spring creates the most interesting sunsets of the entire year along the coast. This particular beach expedition a few years back proved it again. It’s a culmination of the varied weather patterns that cram themselves into a single air space: a mixture of fat clouds where darker outer layers contain copious threats of rain, yet they’re floating apart enough to allow lots of blue sky in.

These spaces, along with the moist air mixed with a number of meteorological factors, seem to bend and refract light in varying ways, allowing the waning sunlight through in eccentric combinations of colors. These holes between clouds make for bold shafts of sunlight to come crashing through in fascinating shapes. Or the bulky clouds create unusual shadows that are cast by the light.

All these things have various scientific names and explanations.

It’s in this atmosphere where I begin bouncing around one north Oregon coast beach.

Just south of Cannon Beach, I can see those massive beams of sunlight streaming down from the clouds and casting large patches of brilliance on the sea at the horizon. With the mix of sunny spots, blue sky and dark clouds, the ocean is a patchwork of dark to slightly less dark areas – an enthralling aesthetic exercise in contrast.

These beams are called crepuscular rays. They are the result of particles in the air, in this case usually water particles, getting lit up as the sun comes through a hole in the clouds. Basically, these rays are not really diagonal – they are straight lines coming towards you. It's that same perspective effect you get from train tracks: they appear to get narrower the farther away they are. See Oregon Coast Science: What Are Those Shafts of Sunlight

I hit Manzanita’s beach a little after 7 p.m., as all the dynamics of sunset are ready to come out and play. I’m immediately struck by the shades of orange to black that are spilling down at diagonals from the clouds.

Neahkahnie Mountain, the large, looming presence that hovers over Manzanita, is at times more photogenic than others. Tonight, it’s graced by vibrant dark blues of the sea and the off-white of the waves intermingled with patches of different colors from the sunset. Chunks of blue, orange, white and various shades thereof from the sky get reflected in the waves and the wet sheen they leave on the beach.

These hues are especially brilliant tonight; they create a kind of dreamscape on this sandy stretch of Oregon's coast. They are surreal as well as stunning, and make my head whirl a little: moody yet upbeat.

These soft and often more vibrant colors are typical of spring in this region. There's a whole weather science behind it: Spring is Most Photogenic Time on Oregon Coast - Here's Why. It has to do with all the moisture in the atmosphere and the way clouds deflect light and scatter it.

Neahkahnie Mountain is always good for its doppelganger reflection in the water: it makes for some nifty photographic symmetry. Tonight there’s a lot more to it than that. Everything photographs livelier than usual.

The shafts of sunlight change drastically every few minutes. At one point they’re almost evenly placed; another they shape-shift. Sometimes they create an odd little strip of light where rays come down in tooth-like shapes.

The foam from the ocean is heavy as well. In fact, near Cannon Beach, I noticed bunches of that brown foam that has freaked out many a tourist in recent weeks. This is a large bloom of a certain kind of phytoplankton, and the proliferation of foamy stuff on the beaches is partially this as well.

This can mean interesting sights like the “glowing sand” phenomenon, where a type of phytoplankton called dinoflagellates makes a greenish glow on the beaches at night. I’ve often found that that these foamy conditions can mean this type of phytoplankton have arrived as well, but not always. It’s still rather rare on the Oregon coast. What Makes Glowing Sand / Bioluminescent Phytoplankton

There was no brown foam here in Manzanita, although some of the frothier foam had hints of brown. If you see lots of foam on any given day, check back on the beach after dark: you may see the freaky glowing stuff.

Blues and oranges continued shifting. Shafts of sunlight changed shape some more. I was starved, however. It was time to eat so I ducked back to my rig.

On the way back, I notice some woman has set up a green beach blanket over a large log that's poking up in the air at a slight diagonal, and she’s using its convenient shape as a seat. She’s simply gazing out at the slow moving show.

Me, however: I’m too type-A, I guess, to sit anywhere too long. Plus, I'm in manic photographer mode trying to document everything I can. Not that I didn't thoroughly enjoy this, in spite of the pace. In fact, I'll lay odds I was able to gaze in more wonder at it than she was, just knowing the mind-bending science behind these cool sights.

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Andre' GW Hagestedt is editor, owner and primary photographer / videographer of Oregon Coast Beach Connection, an online publication that sees nearly 1 million pageviews per month. He is also author of several books about the coast.

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