Even though the name sounds like chilly weather, the west coast of Chile was anything but cold last week. While the U.S. Southeast was bracing for severe conditions from winter storm Kayla, the South American country was experiencing spectacular events.
In Viña Del Mar, a popular seaside resort 75 miles from inland capital Santiago, conditions were nice for walks on the beach and bathing. With temperatures topping out in the low 80s and no rain, locals and tourists were enjoying beautiful summer days (seasons in the southern hemisphere are the opposite of ours).
But even though the wind didn’t exceed 15 mph, the tidal effect from the full moon suddenly created waves that evoked images of the historic tsunamis on the other side of the Pacific years ago. Sixteen-foot breakers came crashing ashore, inundating the roadways and sweeping cars out of the parking lots.
News videos show a civil defense SUV trying to make it down the street, only to be caught in the breakers and overturning. Luckily, no reports of fatalities arrived from Viña Del Mar.
Young people can even be seen in the footage, making a sport of holding on to railings and getting overrun by the waves.
The coastline in that town and nearby Valparaiso is rocky, resembling California shores more than the sandy barrier islands we have on the U.S. East Coast. That’s a plus when the ocean gets stirred up by wind and tides, because hotels and houses are raised higher above the water line than they are in Savannah or Charleston.
The barrier islands of the U.S. Southeast are more vulnerable than rocky shores because wave action shifts the sand easily, making every island move constantly.
On the Georgia coast, storms of the nor’easter type are the destroyers at this time of the year. They bring heavy waves, which remove massive amounts of sand from underneath building foundations, causing them to collapse.
When a full moon combines with an alignment of earth, moon and sun, those waves get even higher in what’s called a syzygy. On New Year’s Day 1987, a winter storm made history in Georgia and the Carolinas. It brought 12-foot breakers to our flat sandy beaches, wrecking countless houses in the process with tide-enhanced waves.
Meanwhile, conditions on Chile’s coast are tourist-friendly again, and Santiago residents are turning the air conditioning up in 90-degree daytime highs.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.