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Sneaker Waves More Common on Oregon / Washington Coast Than Rest of U.S.

Published 10/03/21 at 7:06 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Sneaker Waves More Common on Oregon / Washington Coast Than Rest of U.S.

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(Oregon Coast) – To those growing up or living in Oregon and Washington for some time, the dangers of sneaker waves on the coastline are generally not a big surprise (although there are plenty who still don't know or don't get the danger). You hear about them fairly often. (Sneaker wave at Seaside, photo courtesy Seaside Aquarium)

Those visiting the Oregon coast or Washington coast from out-of-state need to be warned and educated. However, and then there is some resistance. Now, it turns out there may be a reason for that.

Many here will find it a surprise that sneaker waves are more common on the south Washington coast and whole of the Oregon coast than many other places in the world, and certainly compared to other parts of the U.S. In fact, they practically don't exist on the California coastline, the Gulf of Mexico, and likely much of the east coast of the United States.

Indeed, the frequency of sneaker waves lessens the farther north you go on the Washington coast.

Out-of-state visitors are simply not used to the idea.

Exactly how different this coastline is compared to others is hard to quantify, but Tyler Kranz with the Portland office of the National Weather Service (NWS) said he's found plenty of evidence to support that it's a bit peculiar to here.

“There is some truth to this observation,” Kranz said.

While he admitted he can't speak directly to other beaches around the globe, he did note sneaker waves occur in places like southern Iceland, western Australia and Tasmani, among others. Certainly when it comes to the U.S., however, there's more of a problem of rip tides on the east coast and gulf states rather than sneaker waves.

It all comes down to the kinds of sea conditions we get on the Oregon and Washington coast.

“Sneaker waves tend to occur more frequently during sea state conditions that feature a long period swell with wave heights of at least 5 feet,” Kranz said. “The higher the wave heights are and the longer the wave period is, the higher the chance for a sneaker wave to occur.”

That plus the geography of the near-shore environment combine to make these coastlines more prone to the sneaker wave phenomenon.

“The reason the Oregon coast experiences more sneaker waves than the California coast is because seas are typically less active for the California coast, and it's rarer to see swell conditions for the California coast,” Kranz said. “But, these sea state conditions are a common occurrence for the waters off the coast of Oregon given our active storm track for much of the year, so it's no surprise we are the ones dealing with an enhanced threat for sneaker waves.”

Kranz said the Portland office of the NWS sends out enhanced sneaker wave threat advisories when swell heights are greater than five feet and the period swells are greater than 12 seconds. If, for example, the wave height is over nine feet and the periods between swells are 14 seconds, that's an even greater threat. Then, the NWS sends out messages of warnings, but especially if there's a weekend coming up or a holiday when more people are likely to be out there.

The Oregon coast is not unique to rip currents either, but Krantz said they're more common back east as well, especially since more are swimming in the warmer waters of the gulf.

Then there's the mixed bag of the Washington coast.

“The coast of Washington certainly sees sneaker waves too, but the Washington coast is mostly rocky and steep rather than gently-sloped sandy beaches like much of the Oregon coast,” Kranz said. “A sneaker wave pushing into a rocky cliff where no people are is no big deal, but a sneaker wave pushing onto a popular sandy beach with a gentle slope (like Cannon Beach and many of our other beaches) can be life threatening as you know. Unfortunately, we typically see at least one death a year somewhere along the Oregon coast due to sneaker waves and the hazards that are associated with them.”

Samantha Borth with the Seattle office of the NWS confirmed what Kranz was saying about the Washington coastline. There, sneaker waves are more common south of Grays Harbor (Westport, Long Beach, for example), but less so north of there. The coast gets rockier in that area through into the Olympic National Park.

“We can see them on the north Washington coast, based on the data we have from the last couple of years,” Borth said. “We can see them up around Cape Flattery but not as often as around Grays Harbor, Pacific County.”

Oregon Coast Beach Connection has recently received some feedback from readers indicating those from other coastal states have a hard time understanding this concept of sneaker waves. This new angle of the phenomena being more common to the NW then becomes important when it comes to educating visitors of the dangers, not to mention those dwelling in land-locked states.

“The problem with sneaker waves is that they can catch people off guard when they are simply walking along the beach,” Kranz said. “For people who are used to walking along beaches on the U.S. East Coast, Gulf of Mexico, or southern California, these sneaker waves can come as a big surprise if they have never been to the Oregon coast before or are unaware of the hazards we face on Oregon's beaches.”

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