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Mysterious Structures Again a Possibility On Oregon Coast

Published 12/30/2010

(Cannon Beach, Oregon) – As winter treads onward, and storms continue to batter the beaches, you get an increased chance of seeing some strange, even puzzling objects rising out of the sand that gets scoured by such wave action. It's not a guarantee, as this winter hasn’t seen a lot of scouring action everywhere. The weird wonders don’t happen every year. But the recent appearance of a rarely seen shipwreck in Rockaway Beach, and the emergence of gravel beds thick with agates along several stretches of Oregon coast provide a bit of hope.

One of the weirder wonders to look forward to is the “red towers,” a surreal looking, stump-like structure that usually just appears on the north coast – if at all. They resemble a combination of something from a Yes album cover from the 70’s and a drawing from Dr. Suess, coming in puzzling, slightly twisted shapes and often various shades of red.

They appear when sand levels get really low. So far, in recent years, they’ve pretty much shown up in only Arch Cape and Hug Point, just south of Cannon Beach, and there have been a few scattered reports of some possible sightings on the central coast in some winters.

They’re only a couple feet high, but they’re big on first impressions.

Red tower at Arch Cape - photo Tiffany Boothe, Seaside Aquarium

The last time they showed up was in early 2008 – the same winter the famed historic cannon appeared, and one of the lowest sand events in recent history.

Seaside geologist Tom Horning said the “red towers” are basically beach sand cemented by red iron oxide, formed beneath feet of sand layers.

There, these sandstone-like structures don’t get batted around by waves and objects and such, which keeps their not-so-resilient forms intact. 

“Minerals cement the sands together to form reinforced, irregular bodies within and under the beach, which are then exposed to the casual observer when the beach is washed away,” Horning said. “Not uncommonly, the tops of the towers are exposed first, and rocks will wear these away, creating little pot-hole craters that make attractive landforms for photographers.”

At Hug Point, mushroom-shaped rocks have popped up in the past as well, their true shapes revealed by the low sand levels. “These knobs of sandstone bedrock are being eroded by cobbles and pebbles on the sea floor that are swished and thrown against the bedrock during periods of strong storms,” Horning said. “Similar ledges are present under the cliffs at Hug Point, formed by the same erosional process.”

Mushroom-like rock at Hug Point

Also in 2007, low sand levels revealed strange discolorations in the inverted terrace-like ledges beneath the cliffs. Horning said the colors come from the fact these areas are almost never exposed to air.

This beach has been eroding for about 4,000 years, Horning says. The cliffs have lost only about 40 or 50 feet in that time. The cliff and bedrock beneath were formed long before that – millions of years ago – and then covered by debris, re-emerging thanks to erosion about 4,000 years ago.

This kind of erosion probably caused local native tribes to pick up and move every once in a while, as the ocean consumed the coastal forest and their villages, driving everything and everyone eastward across the coastal plain toward the looming mountain front, which now marks our modern shoreline.

It’s also interesting to note that erosion and the possible rising sea levels may be washing things away on the Oregon coast, but the north coast at least seems to be rising.

Beach erosion opened up some strange colors in the cliffs in 2007.

“If all this is accurate, the north coast is rising independently of sea level by about one foot every thousand years,” Horning said. “It appears that the coast drops from one to six feet with each earthquake, but the land still rises slowly in the meantime. After the Great Alaska Earthquake in 1964, for example, the land at Kenai had dropped about six feet. It has since all been restored by uplift in only 40 years. Presumably these rates vary through time, and the same will probably happen along the coast of Oregon, after the next Big One hits - whenever that will be.” (Photo below courtesy Seaside Aquarium).

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