Washington's Coast
Washington State Department of Ecology

El Niño
beach change
El Nino storm hazards
High storm waves erode North Beach, Ocean Shores, 1998. The El Niño of 1997/98
High sea levels, storms, and wind-driven waves hit Washington's coast -- the strongest El Niño of the century.

Extreme Waves
The El Niño winter of 1997/98, brought frequent storms and high waves. On January 17th, 1997, the Grays Harbor wave gauge reported a wave as tall as a four story building, 48 foot high (14.52 meters). A storm system or squall line surge produced this extreme wave. This storm caused massive overwash and erosion at Ft. Canby State Park.
Waves 48 feet in height
Sea level fluctuations, Toke Point Tide Gauge

Record-breaking sea levels
Two El Niño events, 1997/98 and 1982/83, brought water levels to record highs along Washington's coast. These abnormally high water levels contributed to erosion, flooding, and shoreline changes. Water level fluctuations were recorded at the Toke Point tide gauge.

"A decade ago, El Niño was thought to be no more than a shift in currents and a warming of ocean waters... No one imagined that El Niños have wide-ranging consequences, including playing a major role in beach erosion along the West Coast of the United States."
--- Paul Komar, The Pacific Northwest Coast: Living with the Shores of Oregon and Washington.
What is El Niño?
El Niño is a recurring ocean-atmosphere phenomenon. Along Washington's coast, strong El Niños can bring: extreme waves from the south-southwest, more frequent severe storms, increased sea levels, above average river flows, warmer than normal water temperatures, flooding, and erosion.
How often does El Niño occur?
El Niño occurs every two to ten years. In the past 98 years, there have been 23 El Niños. Four of the most powerful El Niños have occurred since 1980.
  • 1982-83 El Niño brought extreme waves
    The 1982-83 El Niño brought large waves that caused severe beach erosion along the Pacific Northwest coast. Shoreline change persisted for years after this El Niño event.
  • 1997/1998, the strongest El Niño in 100 years
    Large waves during El Niño winter months eroded 41 of 47 beaches surveyed for the Southwest Washington Coastal Erosion Study. High storm waves stripped sand from the shore, leaving many beaches narrower and steeper.

Sources: The Southwest Washington Coastal Erosion Study. Sea level chart redrawn from "Large Scale Cycles of Holocene Deposition and Erosion at the Entrance to Willapa Bay, Washington: Implications for Future Land Loss and Coastal Change," Robert Morton et al., USGS.

Southwest Washington Coastal Erosion Study. A recent study of Washington's coastal processes and shoreline changes, including the effects of El Niño.
What is an El Niño?, NOAA Illustrated with realtime graphics from the TAO array of moored buoys in the Equatorial Pacific Ocean.
Frequently Asked Questions About El Niño, NOAA Answers to questions and links on El Niño, ENSO, an La Niña
Oblique Aerial Photography, Coastal Erosion from El Niño, USGS Aerial photos to determine storm related changes to the coast.

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