OREGON COAST – From ocean burps, whale burps, snow going the wrong direction to surreal beaches that make strange noises – there’s a lot more to the coast than storm watching during the winter. In fact, one of the strangest facts about the region this time of year is how the weather can be distinctly non-winter like.
One of these funky factoids is the erosion the region goes through each winter – some years more than others. Because of winter storms, sand gets scoured out by all that crazed wave action. This means your favorite beach may look vastly different during the winter than in summer. Places with lots of rocky areas will be especially striking, like Arch Cape, Hug Point, parts of Lincoln City, Seal Rock, Oceanside, and more. You’ll notice structures you’ve never seen before as sand levels decrease.
This was the reason those wild archaeological finds were made at Arch Cape in 2007, when an Oregon teen discovered two cannon lying in the sand, from an 1800’s-era ship. That winter created an unusually low sand level event, which resulted in other oddities being found, like a mail truck from the 30’s around Waldport, and strange geological objects called “red towers” that looked like something from a Yes album cover.
Then there’s the phenomenon that’s been nicknamed “magic rocks” on some beaches, with one beach around Manzanita even being nicknamed “Magic Rocks Beach.” These make a puzzling, esoteric noise created by stones moving and crackling in the tide.
Some beaches – mostly on the north coast - have a proliferation of small to large, rounded stones that have been polished by the tides. These rocks, in turn, will make an odd rattling noise when disturbed by the tides as they wash across them in the sand. In some places, the noise is softer and rarer than others. In some spots it’s loud, even to the point of almost a roar, and so constant it inspired the term “magic rocks.”
Some of the beaches at Oceanside have a touch of this quality. It’s also quite strong at the black-sanded beach at the bottom of Yaquina Head, Rock Creek Campground between Yachats and Florence, in other parts of Arch Cape, and often really loud in the little village of Cape Meares, which is on the Bayocean Spit and next to the cliffs also called Cape Meares.
Crazed sea foam during some storms is a particularly awe-inspiring sight. This is thanks to phytoplankton known as diatoms – the little creatures that create sea foam. Bill Hanshumaker, public information officer for the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, said these tend to bloom in greater numbers in the spring, and seasonal storms can result in incredible sights such as foam so frothy it moves like flurries of snow across the beaches and highways.
During winter storms, however, with stronger winds, given the right conditions you get some truly surreal sights because of sea foam. In some places, like the canyon-like rock structure that bottoms out in the Devil’s Churn near Yachats, the wind and waves can blast chunks of foam so hard they go flying upwards some 200 feet to the highway, looking like snow going the wrong direction.
After storms is an exceptional time to go beachcombing. You may find freakish things like “whale burps” or “ocean burps.”
“Whale burps” is the nickname for rock-hard bundles of sea grass that have been compressed together.
“Ocean burps” is a very loose term for bundles of sundry objects that get stuck together and tossed up by the tide, which often yield still living specimens like live egg casings from various species. The technical term is detritus, and it means the ocean is casting some interesting objects from the depths onto the shores – things you don’t normally find on the beaches.
The staff at Seaside Aquarium has found all sorts of wonders in these: 30 live cockleshells (a form of clam), moon snail shells, crabs (living and dead), and numerous times they found squid eggs, which eventually hatched and became part of the exhibit.
Keith Chandler, manager of the aquarium, said these ocean burps happen under just the right conditions, when the right mix of storms happen along with the right kind of ocean currents.
“It’s an upwelling of stuff from the ocean floor,” Chandler said. “If you see a patch of dark brown on the beach, go look through it because you’ll find some cool stuff.”
The really crazy truth about winter weather is that it isn’t all about storms or extreme conditions. Indeed, there are more pleasant days than Oregonians give the coast credit for. And, believe it or not, it’s actually warmer on the coast during the winter.
The big legend among Oregonians that when it’s nice in the valley it’s the opposite on the coast – and vice versa – is not true. The two regions largely share the same weather systems and conditions, although extreme heat in the valley tends to generate fog on the coast about half the time.
In the winter, while the coast is known for its wild storms and windy conditions, those don’t happen as often as you may think, however. And in fact, when it’s cold and clear in the valley, it’s often somewhat warm and clear on the coast. It’s more moderate there because of the influence of the ocean, which is around 50 degrees. So it’s not uncommon to find the coast in the 50’s and sunny (or even overcast), while it’s freezing in Portland or elsewhere inland.
Statistics even back this up. According to the Hatfield Marine Science Center’s Web site, you can see an increase of pleasant days over the three months.
A fairly typical year is the data from the winter of 2001 - 02.
December had five days with no rain, and five days with less than a tenth of an inch of rain.
January of 2002 had a total of seven days that had a tenth of an inch of precipitation or none at all. Two days were at 60 degrees, but these had winds of around 50 mph and precipitation of two inches.
Then comes the shocking little secret of February.
In February 2002, a total of 11 days had zero rain, and four had .02 inches or less. What many people don’t realize is that February will bring a bundle of sunnier days to both the valley and the beach. But while it tends to stay chilly inland, the coast can often be basking in the sunny glow of 60-degree weather, and what some refer to as the “mini-spring” of February.
Andre' Hagestedt is the editor of Oregon Coast Beach Connection, a travel news and entertainment Web site about the upper half of Oregon’s coast. He has been a journalist for nearly 15 years, having been employed at or written for a variety of media organizations throughout the Northwest. He lives in Portland and in Manzanita part time, and admits he is "so obsessed with the Oregon coast that it's ready to take a restraining order out on him."