El Niño: What to Expect When You’re Expecting

Eleven unscientific predictions for the potential El Niño season

Don't let the impending doom -- or beauty -- of this season's El Nino catch you by surprise. Follow these tips to make sure that you're not left behind. Photo: Gilley
Don’t let the impending doom — or beauty — of this season’s El Niño catch you by surprise. Follow these tips to make sure that you’re not left behind. Photo: Gilley

As a storm of conjecture threatens to sweep us towards the Apocalypse, it's probably time for an El Niño reality check—to hear from a segment of the Earth's population who can actually speak from direct super-swell experience: the surf geezers. That's right, sonny boy—if you really want to know what lies ahead, it's time to ignore the young, nerdy meteorologist and talk to an older surfer. Any lifelong surf addict pushing 50 has now lived through at least three significant El Niño events, and, if he or she is worth their salt, have literally explored El Niño phenomena from the inside out. We're talking about embedded, in-depth analysis here, people.

So, for example, if you were to ask a codger like me what to expect from a strong, '83-ish El Niño pattern, I would share the following predictions:

1. The surf won't start pumping until January. Despite all sorts of predictions to the contrary, the fall surf season preceding an El Niño winter is usually quite normal, and just when you think this El Niño thing is a giant hoax, along comes the deluge. Don't stop training, in other words.

2. Once the swell train gets going, The north and west shores of the Hawaiian Islands will get pummeled by consistently large surf, with a light and variable wind pattern dominating. Translated, this means many island spots will be too big for much of the winter, and even the breaks that can handle the swell will be windy and blown in the afternoons. On the other hand, there's a very high chance that the clean morning conditions will lead to the biggest wave ever paddled into at Jaws.

3. For much of the winter, the West Coast of the United States will be inundated by swell, rain, and wind, and without a south wind or an escape strategy, surfers north of Point Conception could be dry-docked for weeks on end by a violent diarrhea-like ocean. In addition, a storm pattern latitude shift will make most of these swells very westerly, and, in some cases, southwesterly in direction.

4. The jet stream will move low enough to make the continental wind above the storms offshore. If you have a desire to surf Nelscott Reef on a cranking offshore, hundred-foot southwest swell, for example, this might be the winter to give it a go.

5. The Gulf of Mexico will fill with consistent, much-stronger-than-usual wind swell. Spots in eastern Central America will go off, and guys that surf the gulf in Florida will actually get barreled.

6. Rare, north swell spots in Central America, Mainland Mexico, and the South Pacific will go absolutely bananas, and produce surf that remains the talk of the atoll until the next strong El Niño year.

7. The pathologically-arid deserts of Northern Chile and Peru will get hammered by unusual storms, and torrential flooding will ensue.

8. Australia, Europe, and North Africa will have relatively bad surf seasons, with Oz and Africa suffering the additional insult of debilitating drought.

9. The winds will go all freaky in Indo, producing wind patterns that are the direct opposite from the normal patterns.

10. The Pacific Southern Hemisphere season following the winter will be a very good one for surf, too.

11. It will rain like hell in Southern California, which will both inundate most breaks with hepatitis-level toxins, and create epic, once-in-a-lifetime sandbars. Even in '98, the storm pattern was strong enough to provide surfers like Pat O'Connell with long stand-up barrels at places like…Doheny.

Of course the natural inclination for jaded codgers like myself is to tell you that this whole El Niño thing is possibly overblown, that these early signs could easily reverse themselves, and that the whole thing could be a dud. And you can't blame us—several times in the past, meteorologists have teased us with El Niño bait, and pulled back at the last minute. Some of us are a bit swell-shocked.

But, like Dirty Harry wisely advised, you have to ask yourself one question: "Do I feel lucky?" Because if you do, and a strong El Niño is on tap, it's time to start getting ready. Training and planning won't kill you. Being prepared is everything during these once-in-a-decade oceanic events, and if you blow it now, you could be crying in the soup for the next 10 years.