Though the jury is still out on how exactly climate change will alter coastal weather patterns, there's no question that a warming atmosphere and ocean will make marine weather more extreme—causing higher sea levels, more beach erosion, heavier rainstorms, and, very possibly, bigger waves. With today's sophisticated predictive models, a big "bomb" (the rapid deepening of an area of low pressure that signals a burst of high winds) rarely catches us unawares anymore—but science still hasn't ironed all the mystery out of intense weather. Our coastal storms are as varied as a toddler's moods: Some lift after a single violent tantrum; some whine for six hours, rage for another six, then weep through the night; others hang around moping for days.
Of course, planting yourself in the path of wicked weather bears some obvious risks. But luckily for storm watchers, elevated vantage points such as headlands, promontories, and bluffs are not only safer than beaches, they also command better views of the 20-to-30-foot waves that everyone wants to capture on film. Ruggiero, the geology professor, explains this phenomenon as an interaction between wave structure and coastal topography. "Due to the gradual incline of our coastline," he says, "often the really powerful waves break far from shore, and closer in you get this violent cacophony of white water." For the best views of unmarred swells, he recommends standing on an outcropping that forces the waves to break right near shore, such as Yaquina Head or Cascade Head.
A poet could compose a resounding ode just from the names of our prime storm-watching eminences: Cape Disappointment (at the mouth of the Columbia); Cape Flattery (at the tip of Washington's Olympic Peninsula); Cape Foulweather, Yachats, Heceta Head, Boiler Bay (on the central Oregon Coast). Ideally, such a verse would be penned in the thick of a howling gale on the deck of Canada's fabled Wickaninnish Inn, or in a spray-soaked cabin at Washington's Kalaloch Lodge, while gazing over the roiling Pacific.
But you don't have to be a poet to wax rhapsodic about the majesty of Northwest coastal storms. Listen to Marshall Nelson, a lawyer who has watched decades of storms roll in from the deck of his home near Arch Cape, Oregon: "In the city, you can hear and see a storm—but on the coast, you're in the middle of it. There is something almost mystical in how small we are in the face of nature." —David Laskin