El Nio Is Back: Will The Boy Create a Manly Winter of Surf?

With the first day of autumn behind us, the days growing shorter, and the Northern Hemisphere showing some life, it's time to begin pondering what Mother Nature may have in store for us this Winter. This year a meteorological inquisitiveness about what's on tap has become particularly poignant for West Coast surfers due to a lackluster summer, marked by maddeningly small conditions, made even more frustrating by a booming hurricane track in the Atlantic that just keeps on churning. With Californians beginning to fantasize about trips to New England, surfers up and down the coast frothing over any bump on the horizon, and a non-stop bombardment of pictures and footage from the East Coast showcasing endless overhead barrels, it seems a breaking point can't be far off for the West. Is it time for those at the mercy of the Pacific to throw up their hands and holler at the heavens, "when will we get ours?"

According to those in the know, that may not be necessary just yet. Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that relief is on the way. In a press release, NOAA officially announced El Nio is back, and while these two little words are certainly music to the ears of many, don't wax up your 9’6" gun just yet.

All El Nio events are not created equal, nor do they necessarily translate into an epic winter season like the one seen in 1997. In fact, El Nio intensity can vary greatly from event to event, and since NOAA omitted an explanation of what exactly "The Boy" may bring this year, Surfermag.com contacted Nathan Todd Cool for some insight on what we can expect. Cool, who is Chief Forecaster for the WaveCast service at WetSand.com, and author of "The WetSand WaveCast Guide to Surf Forecasting," was extremely helpful in highlighting some of the telltale El Nio indicators being seen this year, and explaining what they tell us about upcoming surf potential.

According to Cool, meteorologists are reporting three major indicators of an El Nio cycle. "We're currently seeing forerunners to an El Nio event that is rapidly progressing in the Pacific," he says. "Prior to a seasonal El Nio oscillation we tend to see other anomalous activity. These anomalies include Madden-Julian Oscillations, which are events that occur when a large region of enhanced deep thunderstorm activity moves eastward from the Indian Ocean into Indonesia, and then into the Western Tropical Pacific. These oscillations give rise to what are known as Oceanic Kelvin Waves (OKW) below the ocean surface, which propagate eastward along the equator carrying abnormally warm sub-surface water toward, and eventually to, the South American Coast. One such Oceanic Kelvin Wave reached the coast of South America a couple weeks ago; a signal that El Nio is coming."

Cool also points to two other El Nio indicators. A reported 13 percent decline in rainfall in India, and an Australian Bureau of Meteorology warning of hotter, drier months ahead, are key meteorological symptoms that an El Nino event is brewing. He also says the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center issued a report on September 9th confirming that all signs are lining up for an El Nio pattern.

However, while all evidence seems to confirm NOAA's prediction, Cool does point out that an understanding of the intensity of these factors is what will truly give us an accurate gauge of what we can expect wave wise in the coming months. "How strong is this year's El Nio? Well, just because a Kelvin Wave makes it's way to South America doesn't mean we would notice much of an effect from it. The way to measure its impact with some sort of educated guess, is to analyze the Sea Surface Temperature (SST) in the Equatorial Pacific, and compare these readings with other El Nio events. Current SST readings are coming in at +1E Celsius in relation to a normal year. Although that doesn't seem like much, consider that the El Nio of 1997 was indicated by a +4E anomaly at this same time of year," explains Cool. "If we were to compare the '97 event to current SST readings, we could go out on a limb and say that this year's winter will be affected by an El Nio that's only 25% as strong as that of 1997. But, that would be going out on a limb, and hey, we're talking about Mother Nature here and we all know she tends to be finicky."

While Cool's rough estimations indicate that this year may not be as epic as '97, he does point out that this 'mini El Nio' will, without a doubt, translate to an increase in Northwest surf and storm activity for the West Coast. Scheduled to truly kick in around January, and last through March, the El Nio driven winter storm activity is sure to help raise some pulses up and down the West Coast. Cool also goes on to say that El Nio conditions are likely to continue into the summer. "The West Coast should see added hurricane activity in 2005 fueled from the warmer than normal Equatorial Pacific waters."

For Left Coasters this at least is something to look forward to. A better than average winter season, followed by an active summer next year is exactly how to spell relief, and though an improvement may be farther off than most would like, the promise of a better day is certainly on the horizon. But what about El Nio effects back East? "Next year by the look of things right now, as El Nio conditions intensify, the hurricane activity in the Atlantic should subside," explains Cool. "This is typical during El Nio summers where the jet stream is dipped lower, and thus blows the tops off of building tropical storms and hurricanes." Unfortunately, it seems that the only thing East Coasters have to look forward to next year is being on the receiving end of the cross continental photo barrage. That, and perhaps the prospect of seeing fewer grumpy Californians out at Ruggles.