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Waves That Go the Wrong Direction: Weird Oregon / Washington Coast Science

Published 07/02/020 at 5:44 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Waves That Go the Wrong Direction: Weird Oregon / Washington Coast Science

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(Oregon Coast) – It’s a lovely summer day on the beach, you’re walking along the tideline but it’s getting a bit confusing because there’s sort of two tidelines. There’s a pool of water so wide and gigantic it makes little waves of its own, then a small sand bar between it and the usual ocean waves.

Suddenly, you notice something really odd that makes you blink twice. You see waves going the wrong direction. The foam is heading outward, towards the sea, instead of towards land.

Whaaaaat the……??

It’s true. It does happen on the Oregon coast – and the Washington coast. Like this occurrence above that happened in Lincoln City back in 2012. It just so happened that Oregon Coast Beach Connection cameras were there to catch it.

What happens here is a complex set of circumstances that come together and create a reaction that’s quite simple. All of it comes down to summer’s high sand levels: they build so high they create massive sand bars that have large spaces between them. Those spaces get filled with with sea water, and they’re so big that when they’re pushed around by the main tide spilling over that sand bar, that water inside gets rustled around and makes waves in there.

Sometimes, those waves get shot backwards towards the shoreline, making a small wave going backwards. Basically, the giant space gets so filled up with water it surges backwards, towards the sea.


Above: a moving gif showing the wave moving backwards

Every summer sand levels rise because calm waves deposit sand. Conversely, storms take sand away. That kind of action can remove ten to twenty feet of sand in just a few hours, revealing bedrock or other wonders that were hiding underneath.

When summer sand levels get higher you get all sorts of interesting things, like those big sand bars that suddenly appear. If everything is situated just right, especially the size of the pooled up area on the eastward side of the sand bar, it’s an area that gets its own wave action. It’s like there’s two tidelines: one smaller one right up on the beach then the other actual tideline.

As water fills up that big gap, it can overfill and bounce backwards towards the ocean in a singular, oddball wave. Most of the time, little waves just slosh around there in random directions.


Above: Tillicum Beach near Waldport. You can see a double tideline with the sand bar in the middle, farther up in the photo

How do you find this? Well, first it’s only a summer thing. You have to have the uneven sand bar action created by summer’s higher sand levels. Stick to July through September.

Aside from that it’s impossible to predict when or where, and the actual sight of a wave going the wrong direction is almost a one in a million. But if you see a large pool – or second tideline situation – where ocean water is creating little waves, you’ve got a chance to spot this wacky phenomenon.

The other fascinating aspect here is this water is much warmer than the actual ocean, having floated around the inner shoreline sands a bit, and in some circumstances warmed by the sun. The shallower the pool, the warmer it is. This feels exceptionally good to wade in. (More at Take a Close Look: What's Wrong with This Oregon Coast Wave?)

All this can happen from the southern Oregon coast up through the Washington coast: from Brookings, Gold Beach, Coos Bay, Waldport up to Long Beach and Raymond. Oregon Coast Hotels for this event - Where to eat - Map - Virtual Tour

Not all is good with these “pools” of sea water on beaches, however. If you see a lot of these pools clumped together, where you can see the edges but not always the bottoms, be very careful. Nicknamed crab holes, some of these large pools can be two to five feet deep and you can get hurt. See the warning video and link. Hidden Danger of Summer Sands on Oregon Coast; Video ...... It's not talked about much as it doesn't happen often. But you can fall into mysterious “holes” in the sand in those oh-so-pleasant breakers




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