Look at These Insane Waves Battering the Northwest

The West Coast has been the land of apocalypse weather this winter. First fires. Then mudslides. Now huge waves are pummeling the Oregon, Washington and British Columbia coasts along with tropical storm-force winds. Northern California is also getting pounded to the point where a big wave surf competition is on hold because the waves are too big.


The National Weather Service is warning of waves up to 23 feet high reaching shore through Friday afternoon. Images of the waves crashing against Washington’s Olympic Coast and lighthouses in Oregon show their true power as spray flies up to 130 feet into the air.

Meanwhile in Northern California, the Mavericks Challenge, one of the biggest big wave surfing competitions in the world, was a no go this week. Organizers watch the forecast and aim to announce the event 72 hours in advance of when the waves really get rocking at the storied surf spot in Half Moon Bay, CA. They took a hard look at the forecast for this week, and decided it was too dangerous to call.

“It’s almost one of those days where you could die just trying to get out,” big wave surfer Jamie Williams told SF Gate.

Despite the warnings and a 19-foot boat capsizing nearby, a few foolhardy souls took to the ocean to ride waves up to 40 feet. The results were a few surfers hanging on for dear life and many surfboards flying up in the air above the monster waves.


Big wave surfer Othmane Choufani described a wave he caught there this week as “biggest wave of his life” according to surf film production company Powerlines Productions, which published images of the feat.


While the waves making it to shore are astounding, the real action is out to sea. Buoys are silently recording truly dizzying waves in the 40-50 foot range. One buoy 30 miles off the Oregon coast topped out at 60 feet.


“Seas of this magnitude only occur every couple of years, on average,” the National Weather Service’s Portland office wrote in a tweet that also helpfully illustrates how insane that would look hitting shore.


The source of the waves is a powerful storm churning off the coast. It’s spinning counterclockwise, and its powerful winds are sweeping uninterrupted across hundreds of miles of ocean. The combination of strong winds and a long fetch is what’s causing such ginormous waves to rush ashore.

At least one person has been swept out to sea and is presumed to be dead, underscoring how dangerous it is to get too close to the ocean in its current roiling state. Beach erosion and coastal flooding have already been reported at a number of locations.


The storm is expected to peter out as Friday wears on but unsettled weather will continue for the next few weeks in the Northwest. Wet weather in the region is one of the hallmarks of this winter’s La Niña, a climate pattern that cools the eastern tropical Pacific and shifts weather patterns around the world. So while the waves may die, the snow and rain will keep coming. For a region that’s seen signs of drought creep in after a warm spell melted snowpack, that’s some good news. That most of that snow will come with fewer pulverizing waves is all the better.

Managing editor at Earther, writing about climate change, environmental justice, and, occasionally, my cat.