California. Photo: Woodworth

El Niño's Wake

Making sense of relentless perfection along the West Coast and beyond

By Justin Housman

 

The first rule about El Niño seasons is that no two of them are exactly alike. Dip even tentatively into analyses of El Niño events and you’ll find that any meteorologist tackling the subject is careful to qualify their weather predictions with the scientific equivalent of a resigned “let’s wait and see” shrug. But that didn’t stop every amateur weatherman from San Diego to Crescent City from setting the Internet ablaze last fall with declarations that Hawaii and the West Coast were in store for an El Niño–fueled battering of historic proportions, with Eddie-size surf raging at a beach near you and cliff-side Southern California homes sloughing off into the sea. But until the first mammoth swell trains began roaring in, it was all still just a guessing game.

 

Meteorologists sure had a lot of data to make educated guesses with, though. There are a few ways to measure the strength of an El Niño, including wind speed, air pressure, and sea surface temperature, the latter being the characteristic most of us associate with El Niño. And across the board, pretty much all of those variables were off the charts, or at least pushing up against historical benchmarks, as we headed into the season. It was the Pacific’s water temperature, though, that really got scientists excited, and that kept Northern California surfers in short-armed wetsuits through October.

Andrew Doheny. Photo: Carey
Noah Wegrich. Photo: Chachi
Photo: Maassen
Sandspit. Photo: Maassen
Photo: Morales

That warm water is the gasoline for El Niño’s engine, so to speak. As water in the Eastern Pacific (counterintuitively, this is the area of the Pacific nearest the West Coast of North and South America) heats up, it drags the flow of the jet stream south toward the equator, which switches on a conveyer belt ferrying winter storms along a direct path to the West Coast. Warmer water meeting cooler air increases atmospheric instability, which sets the stage for bigger storms and more of them, as well as their lovely offspring: waves. But here comes the reason for meteorologists’ noncommittal shrugs: An El Niño does not cause specific storms; it merely makes the really big ones more likely.

 

Based on water temps recorded in the fall, the 2015–’16 El Niño looked like it would be a doozy. By October, ocean temperatures peaked at more than 2.5 degrees Celsius higher than normal, which tied this year with 1997–’98 as the strongest El Niño in history, at least in terms of sea surface warmth. And if El Niño didn’t provide enough warm water already, try pairing that with the looming specter of a warming planet. Globally, four of the last five years have been the hottest ever measured. Nobody really seems to definitively understand the relationship between global warming and El Niños, but with oceans already heating up without any help from periodic weather phenomena, many climate scientists think El Niños will likely grow stronger each go-around. We’ve already seen this pattern in the last three major El Niño events: The 1982–’83, 1997–’98, and 2015–’16 El Niño seasons have been the three most powerful in recorded history.

Jesse Colombo. Photo: Chachi
Jamie Mitchell. Photo: Pompermayer
Yadin Nicol. Photo: Carey
Photo: Carey
Baja California. Photo: Carey

Armed with that data, surfers along the West Coast and in Hawaii earnestly waxed step-ups and ordered the kind of massive guns you may ride only once in a decade. By late summer, the Pacific hurricane season had already shifted into high gear—typically a predictor of powerful El Niño winters. The Eastern Pacific saw twice as many hurricanes as normal, including Hurricane Patricia, the strongest storm ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere. Hawaii was regularly buzzed by powerful near-hurricane-force lows, with nine major storms passing near the islands by September. As fall rolled around, windswell waves started lighting up breaks along the Gulf Coast from Texas to the Florida Panhandle—a lesser-known bonus of El Niño caused by cold fronts that are pushed into the Gulf of Mexico by the more southerly swinging jet stream.

 

Meteorologists, made confident by intense tropical-storm activity, declared that Southern California would bear the brunt of El Niño’s weather wrath, and predicted furious bouts of rain and wind. September appeared to prove them right, with torrential downpours setting records from San Luis Obispo southward.

 

But by December, the spigot had been turned off in Southern California. A ridge of high pressure shunted storm activity into the Pacific Northwest. This was bad news for the continuing drought in Southern and Central California, and also for surfers north of Big Sur. There were a handful of memorable days in Santa Cruz, and a couple solid Mavericks swells, but Northern California was mostly wet, ragged, and pulverized by giant, mostly unsurfable waves all winter.

Baja California. Photo: Carey
Los Angeles. Photo: Lowe-White
Dillon Perillo. Photo: Carey
Photo: Carey
Waimea Bay. Photo: Ellis
Blacks. Photo: McGuinness

A lack of local storm activity was wonderful news, however, for Southern California surfers and for homeowners with property perched on coastal bluffs. Nonstop runs of swell were greeted along the Southern California coast by light offshore winds and bluebird skies. Santa Barbara and Ventura were a wonderland of pinwheeling right-hand points. Beachbreaks and reefs from Los Angeles to Baja were cracking and spitting and pumping out memorable tubes seemingly every day, with few bouts of nasty weather to muck up conditions.

 

Similarly, as the season progressed, slackening trade winds near Hawaii made for ideal surf. Once the parade of hurricane- and almost-hurricane-force storms had passed with the end of fall, Hawaii settled into a pristine winter of light winds, dry skies, and clean, clear water. Pat Caldwell, an ex-pro bodyboarder who is now a surf forecaster with NOAA’s Honolulu office, explained that the strongest El Niños tend to produce calm, beautiful weather in the islands with “surface high pressure nearly directly over Hawaii.” This is the kind of weather that made paddle-in days at supersized Jaws possible for multiple swell events in the same winter.

 

So what happened to all the nasty weather we were supposed to get? Explanations abound. This El Niño, a lot of warm water was centered over the Central Pacific rather than closer to California in the Eastern Pacific, which is a bit anomalous, disrupting the already chaotic weather patterns of an El Niño. Climatologists also point to the fact that the entire planet is warmer now, so even if the ocean temperatures were the same in 2015–’16 as they were during the last significant El Niño in 1997–’98, having a warmer planet may have altered their effect this time around. Whatever the reason, there’s been swell, and incredible conditions, with less rain than predicted, so surfers aren’t complaining—at least not until we all die of thirst.

Rusty Long, Todos Santos. Photo: Stacy
Anthony Walsh, Pipeline. Photo: Ellis
Landon McNamara. Photo: Ellis
Koa Rothman: Photo: Aeder
Mark Healey. Photo: Ellis
Kohl Christensen. Photo: Noyle
California. Photo: Woodworth

As weird and wonderful as this El Niño has been, evidence suggests that it’s on the way out. NOAA predictions are calling for possible La Niña conditions for fall and winter of 2016–’17, which means essentially the opposite of El Niño, with fewer Pacific storms, colder water, and colder, drier coastal air next winter. But even with as much reliable data as we have, and the great meteorological minds we have offering early predictions, we won’t know for sure until we pull up to the beach and look out the window.

 

Same as it ever was.