El Niño. Meteorologists say it's coming. And as a surfer you're already thinking raging seas. It conjures up images of the entire ocean kicking wind and monster sized waves in every direction. It's a warming of the water to a rolling boil of atmospheric instability with intense storms in the northern latitudes swinging perilously closer to surf breaks, creating a nonstop swell train directed at the continental U.S. and Hawaii.
But on the East Coast, at least for tropical season, it means lubricating up your fishing reel. It means getting a set of fresh bearings for you skateboard. Maybe it means getting the band back together and trying to get some outdoor gigs. Maybe, just maybe, as a last resort, you'll have to buck up and buy a stand-up paddleboard just to keep you in the ocean on all those flat days ahead. Welcome to another tropical season bought to you by El Niño.
Surfers have long been aware of El Niño, the weather phase wherein waters warm in the equatorial Pacific and create more frequent and intense systems to swing out of the Gulf of Alaska, hence creating more surf and more powerful swells. It's like turning up the volume on winter storms. But for the Atlantic, it basically means putting the ocean on mute for four months.
Scientists were seeing the precursors of this El Niño event back in late 2013. And meteorological institutions that make predictions for the tropical season took El Niño into account along with cooler than average ocean temps, all generally calling for below average activity for the East Coast, pointing to a weak tropical surf season from the Caribbean to the Canadian Maritime. And some are even calling for a "Super El Niño" falling in with the trend of more extreme weather in recent years.
"In my opinion, low hurricane activity, pretty much means nothing. The meteorologists are usually off on predictions. It could be an epic season ... Optimism, right?" laughs Boca Raton-based photographer Ben Hicks, who chases waves on both coasts of Florida. "A bad year just means we will have to travel to find waves. We're used to that. For those stuck in Florida, I do feel bad for you."
But a lot of surfers are crunching numbers. On any given year, the Atlantic Basin sees about 12 tropical storms with more than six of them becoming hurricanes, and an average of 2.5 becoming hurricanes of Category 3 strength or better. The trusted guys at Colorado State University are still calling for 10 named storms, with four becoming hurricanes and a potential for one major hurricane. NOAA models predict eight to 13 tropical tempests that get named, with three to six hurricanes and maybe one or two doozies.
Now let's remember, for a storm to produce swell, it has to be just the right size and in just the right window. Then take into account that 80 percent of the East Coast doesn't handle long period swells very well. But generally more storms do increase the likelihood of waves. And then factor in land-falling hurricanes, which aren't good for anyone, surfers or non-surfers alike.
"The anticipated strengthening of El Niño this summer is expected to create lower than average tropical Atlantic storms in 2014," confirms Micah Sklut of the North American surf forecast site, SwellInfo.com.
"The El Niño oscillation, or warming of the Eastern Pacific ocean, leads to an increase of westerly winds in the Tropical Atlantic. This wind shear creates a less conducive environment for tropical development. Let's not forget, however, that when it comes to surf, it is quality rather then quantity. It only takes one storm to produce that perfect swell that lights up the entire East Coast. Let's hope on that."
Hurricanes get stronger when they grow vertically through the atmosphere. When they get cut down by trade winds, there is far less chance of swell reaching the East Coast. 1983 and 1997 were famous El Niño years and the West Coast went ballistic. Both tropical seasons leading up to those were weak. The last El Niño episode was 2009, which was below average for Atlantic hurricane activity.
But there are a few things to keep in mind, namely that these are merely projections. All these forecasters predicted a rager for 2013 and we barely saw a burp off the equator. Also, trades on the equator have no bearing on non-tropical wave makers. The East Coast may have just had its most brutal winter in recent memory, but it was also back-to-back swells. Might El Niño help our more locally produced summer surf pattern?
"El Niño could actually strengthen the clockwise winds around the Bermuda High this summer. Evidence shows stronger trade winds during the warm phase of El Niño Southern Oscillation," says Surfline's Lead Atlantic Forecaster, Kurt Korte, guardedly. "So, that can mean more trade windswell for the Caribbean and more of those small southeast or east/southeast swell days that the Southeast and Florida coasts get. Also, when a front does approach the Eastern U.S., we can see a bit more southerly winds over the western Atlantic, just enough to put south windswell in the water to keep everyone from going completely crazy. Nothing significant of course, but fish and longboard type stuff."
So there's hope. Besides, hurricanes get a lot of press, but anybody that surfs here knows November's nor'easters and February's south swells were where it was at this year.