Huge, Life-Threatening Waves Are Slamming U.S. West Coast

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The National Weather Service Bay Area office is warning people to stay clear of the beach 'or risk certain death.'. Jeff Smith - Perspectives/Shutterstock

Normally, big waves off the West Coast would be cause for excitement, but a recent rash of waves have officials and meteorologists warning people to stay clear of the surf.

"Generally speaking, stay out of the water," Joe Sirard, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, told the Los Angeles Times. "It's just too life-threatening."

California, Oregon and Washington are all under high surf warnings, with high surf advisories stretching from Canada to Mexico. The waves are creating a potential coastal catastrophe for unprepared or inexperienced swimmers.

According to the Times, west-facing beaches will be hardest hit, with waves in California's Ventura County expected to top out at 12 feet tall while Los Angeles County is expected to see waves up to 10 feet. The Ocean Beach Pier in San Diego was closed Dec. 17 following the surf getting high enough to spray public areas of the pier. No damage was reported.

A wave crashes up against rocks near Cap Kiwanda along the Oregon coast
A wave crashes up against rocks near Cap Kiwanda along the Oregon coast on Dec. 12. Bill Reynolds/Flickr

Oregon and Washington saw waves up to 40 feet tall earlier in the week. The weather service issued a high surf advisory through Dec. 25.

These intense waves, also called "sneaker waves," hit the coast with little-to-no warning and with a much greater force and height than the waves preceding it. They are hard to predict because they don't move in a typical, predictable pattern like most waves — thus making them dangerous for people on beaches.

Surf's (a little too) up

Surfers in California for the Mavericks Challenge found that, while they could still surf, the World Surf League (WSL) postponed the event until January.

A surfer braves the waves along Moss Beach
A surfer braves the waves along Moss Beach in California on Dec. 18. Jason Goecke/Flickr

"We will not be running the Mavericks Challenge this week and will wait for more optimum conditions," Mike Parsons, WSL's big wave tour commissioner, said. "The wind is good and conditions will be clean, but the swell will be dropping through the day on Thursday and we won't have the consistency we need to run an excellent event."

The dangerous waves don't just affect surfers. This swell in the Pacific can create strong rip currents, which can carry swimmers out to sea in no time. Exploring rocky shore lines is also discouraged for the same reason.

"If people decide they want to go on the jetties and rocks, there's very good possibility they'll be washed off rocks," Sirard said.

Boating is also ill-advised. While the waves may seem calm in the harbors, large breaking waves can capsize small boats near the harbor entrance.

As the National Weather Service Bay Area office warns, stay clear of the beach "or risk certain death."

Rough waves from Alaska

These waves didn't come out of nowhere. They're the result of a huge low-pressure complex swirling around the Gulf of Alaska, according to The Washington Post. This pressure system is sending storm after storm southward while creating "ideal conditions" for strong winds to blow across the ocean without anything to slow them down. The result? Massive, dangerous waves.

While there aren't any major changes in the forecast for that pressure complex, its intensity is expected to drop off a bit, resulting in less dangerous conditions come Christmas or Dec. 26.