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New Research Into Sneaker Waves On Oregon Coast / Washington Coast Shows How Far Away They Form

Published 02/06/23 at 5:19 AM
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

New Research Into Sneaker Waves On Oregon Coast / Washington Coast Shows How Far Away They Form

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(Newport, Oregon) – Some new research into sneaker waves on the Oregon coast and Washington coast is uncovering a few more insights into how these dangerous phenomena get generated, and just how far away they can start. Oregon State University's (OSU) Tuba Özkan-Haller, interim dean of OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and a co-author of the study, said their team found far-off storms – even up in Alaska – can begin the sneaker wave process for Northwest shores. (Sneaker wave in Newport, photo Oregon Coast Beach Connection)

These findings are important to help create more accurate sneaker wave detection systems on Oregon's coast and Washington's coastline, where some two drowning deaths happen a year because of these surprise monsters (between those two states and California).

OSU said sneaker waves are also known as runup events, akin to small tsunamis. They shoot up the beaches much faster and farther than people are used to, sometimes sweeping beachgoers off their feet or trapping them against other barriers. They've been known to push heavy logs onto people as well as drag them back into the surf as they recede.

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Özkan-Haller said the more that is learned the closer scientists and meteorologists get to creating an early warning system – and with more pinpoint precision for various local areas.

Scientists from the OSU team began with looking at an unusual sneaker wave event that wreaked havoc from northern California into the Oregon and Washington coast. On January 16, 2016, several runup events knocked humans around in a brief period of time, scattered throughout a wide range of locales. Even then they noticed the sneaker waves had all the physics of a tsunami offshore – but there was no quake.

One OSU member at the time Chuan Li, began looking into these in 2020. Between videos and data from offshore these showed interesting characteristics, such as each running about five minutes.


What they found was a relationship between two kinds of waves, OSU said.

“Surface gravity waves, which surfers watch and surf, and which arrive in sets and break on the beach; and underlying longer 'infragravity' waves, which are longer waves fed by the energy created by gravity waves,” a spokesperson said. “One infragravity wave will run underneath a set of gravity waves.”

The big discovery was that storms far up in Alaska or the South Pacific can generate a longer period between the various sets of gravity waves. There is more time between them, creating a wave field that looks well-ordered.

“Those conditions also make the underlying infragravity waves longer and stronger,” OSU said.

Özkan-Haller adds: the longer a wave is, the less likely it is break up out in the ocean. It winds up crashing onshore in a way not dissimilar to the water that sloshes upwards in a bathtub as you're getting in.

It's well known that often sneaker waves swells are created quite a ways offshore, but these findings introduce new dynamics and a new distance that's possible as well.

Not all coastlines are vulnerable to sneaker waves; the narrow continental shelf and the potential for far offshore winter storms contribute to their occurrence in the Pacific Northwest. More research is needed to understand why certain locations within the region are more prone than others to sneaker waves, according to Özkan-Haller. See Sneaker Waves More Common on Oregon / Washington Coast Than Rest of U.S.

Additional authors are Robert Holman and Peter Ruggiero of OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences; Gabriel Garcia-Medina of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, who also earned a doctorate at OSU; and Treena Jensen, David Elson and William R. Schneider of the National Weather Service in Portland. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation.

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

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