Saturday, March 14, 2015

Beach combing is all in the wind

Is it that time already?

I have fond memories of last April - hiking two miles down a steep headland to retrieve as many buoys as I could on a secluded beach before hiking the two miles back up in the rain.  Well, for me they were fond memories.  As for my boyfriend, he hung in there.

Okay, he may have said it was something like Tropic Thunder.  "Hang in there man- we need to get ALL of these floats back to my yard!"
Spring is a beachcomber's dream in the Pacific Northwest, because the winds that normally blow north to south (in summer) or south to north (in winter) go through a brief shifting period in the spring and fall.  This shift happens clockwise, so that means in spring months- mainly March through April, winds are often blowing directly into shore from the west.

This graph from 2014 shows that winds bounced from Southerly (Red: from the South) to Northerly (Blue) in March through April last year.  This time between strong Southerly winds to strong Northerly winds in the summer is called the 'transition period' when winds blow from the west. [Graphic:]
Why is this so awesome for beachcombers? That means that a lot of debris (everything from boats, floats, and buoys) is going to be coming in after 11 months of circulating in the northern Pacific Ocean.  Since 2011, a lot of this debris has been attributed to the Tohoku earthquake and tsunamis, but the Pacific ocean also hosts a large debris field near Hawaii called the North Pacific gyre, where a lot of trash tends to accumulate.  This poses a large problem for northwest shores, so in spring you can also help clean this up by participating in beach cleanups in your community.

So, for every ton of garbage and debris, the beachcomber can hope to find one fascinating piece- maybe even that elusive glass float!

If you go out beach combing, consider taking a trash bag with you to pick up other debris, like styrofoam, plastics or wrappers that you find. Every large piece you pick up is being prevented from disintegrating on your local beach.  Some places, like Lincoln City, Oregon, will very kindly reward you for picking up the beach with monthly raffle drawings. So the way I see it, I'm doing the environment a favor by beach combing as much as possible!

Beachcombing and beach cleanups can be almost the same thing!  This volunteer cleans up crab buoys that washed ashore during the wreck of the F/V Chevelle in 2013 [Photo:, Oregon Surfrider]

So, if beachcombing is your thing, it's time to get out there!  Not only is the weather beautiful (mostly), but you might find some of those rare objects that we all search after.  To me, each unique object tells a story of people, the ocean, and beating the odds.

Below I've listed an activity that you can use to identify the best times to beach comb.

Good luck out there! I'd love to hear about your finds.

Citizen Science Opportunity!
See if you can predict or identify prime beach combing days using weather data.

If you want to track the winds yourself and plan your next beach combing trip, there are some excellent resources out there.  First, is the NH-10 (Newport Hydrographic Line - Station 10) which collects running data on wind speed and direction.  This data can be found at . You can view Wind Speed (listed as meters per second- 1 m/s is roughly equal to 2.24 miles per hour), Wind Direction (listed from 0 to 360 degrees where wind from the North is 360 degrees and South is 180 degrees- think of a circle), and a combined value of Wind Speed + Direction.

Winds in the northern Pacific rotate clockwise throughout the year.  In summer, winds blow from the north in the Eastern Pacific, and in winter they blow from the south. (

Using Wind Speed + Direction can be a confusing way to tell Easterly or Westerly winds, but using the two above criteria separately is an ideal way to tell if beach combing will be good or not in the near future.  First, the higher the wind speed, the more powerfully pushed ashore debris will be.  Secondly, the closer the number value is to 270 degrees- that is, from the east- the more debris that is likely going to be brought directly onshore.

The hardy NH-10 buoy is always bringing us the latest weather and ocean conditions, rain or shine. []
You can also check Wind Speed and Direction from NOAA's oceanographic weather page: if you like more visual interpretations.  Simply select your area of interest and click on 'Forecast Graphics'.  You can hover over the words 'Wind Speed and Direction' to see a map of current conditions, as well as some other items such as temperature, weather, and cloud cover.  Also very handy if you plan on going fishing in the near future. :)

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