SURFER’s meteorologist Nathan Cool is passionate about weather. So much so that when several anomalies and weather-related disasters began popping up after the 2015-2016 El Niño season, Cool decided to connect the dots. His comprehensive new book “Surf, Flood, Fire and Mud,” is basically those connected dots laid out for all to see.
The El Niño weather pattern is not new; from the Ice Age to the Peruvian fisherman that coined the phenomena “El Niño,” to the recent storms of intensifying power, Cool touches on the phenomena’s history and present-day effects. Record-breaking waves and deadly disasters, such as the recent Montecito mudslides, are explained through Cool’s meteorological perspective and as a Southern California resident who experienced them firsthand.
According to Cool, “Waves come first.” Not only in his own priorities as a surfer, but scientifically speaking as well, “when you start seeing big surf that means there's big stuff happening someplace else.” Cool also makes a call to action to become more fully prepared on a large scale for these disasters on a personal and societal level–because more of them are coming.
We asked Cool a few questions about “Surf, Flood, Fire and Mud.”
Is there any correlation between the lack of swell Southern California has seen this winter and the 2015-2016 El Niño?
They're both tied into the same oscillation pattern. The big overlaying thing is the ENSO–the El Niño Southern Oscillation–and it really jostles back and forth between El Niño and La Niña. Everybody pays attention to the two extremes you know; El Niño is associated with big surf and La Niña not so much.
This last winter we were on the opposite side of El Niño but it took a few years to get there. We've been in a moderate kind of weak La Niña and it completely changes the swell track for the winter. That swell track is the same as the storm track that would bring rain to southern California. So basically, if we’re in a La Niña, it sets a big area of high pressure in the Gulf of Alaska that blocks all the swell making storms that would come out of the western Pacific. During El Niño it's just the opposite, that's gone. So it's kinda the same climate cycle but it depends where we're at on the spectrum.
At the far end of the positive spectrum, we're in an El Niño and we've got big surf, La Niña at the other end of the spectrum means no surf. If we're in between then it's kind of a Goldilocks zone in a way. That's what happened the last few years until this winter where we swung the opposite way. The good news is that it looks like we're going to be swinging out of this next winter and at least getting into a neutral phase of this whole ENSO cycle, which isn't bad or epic news.
So it's kind of like the feast before the famine?
Yeah, the world's environment, climate and weather cycles are just so astonishing and amazing. One of the things that lead up to and really influenced the storms during the 2014-2015 El Niño winter season was what was being referred to at the time as the "The Blob." The Blob was this big area of warm water in the Pacific. The Blob had to do with the opposite end of the El Niño spectrum.
The previous La Niña was strong and lasted for about 4-5 years which caused a lack of storm activity in the Gulf of Alaska for a long time–which put us in somewhat of a surf drought during those winters too. That lack of storms from the Gulf of Alaska warmed the Pacific's waters so much that when El Niño came back around it wasn't just the equatorial waters that were warm—it was the entire Pacific that was heated up. That's when sea snakes were washing up on the Silver Strand and schools of hammerhead sharks were circling kayakers in the Santa Barbara channel.
The whole Pacific was turned on its head. Everyone was saying, "Climate change! Global warming! What's going on? What's happening?" In my book, I kind of put a wet blanket on that in a way and explained that there's more to it than that. Yes, the climate is changing but you also have to take a look at the bigger picture of what's influencing that. We saw something that we never saw before and won't really know what it means for a few more years while it's still being analyzed.
At the beginning of the mud chapter, there’s a Petra Nemcova quote that reads, “We cannot stop natural disasters, but we can arm ourselves with knowledge.” What’s the most important piece of knowledge we can arm ourselves with to be prepared?
I think the biggest piece of knowledge is that action is more important than protest. It's really easy to say, "Climate change, climate change, climate change!" and then say what we need to do is buy a Prius and curly light bulbs and all that type of stuff. The fact of the matter is that any steps we take now won't have an effect for a couple hundred years.
It takes 200 years for methane to dissipate out of the atmosphere. It takes 50 or 60 years for carbon to start dissipating out of the atmosphere and we're still pumping a lot more into it all around the world. So we need more action instead of just complaining about it. All these steps are important, but we have to put a certain priority on them.
The biggest priority is to ask, "What do we do to protect ourselves?" For instance, Ventura, the communities that burned, some of these homes burned because of the type of materials they were constructed with. They allowed zoning and the building of these homes in pockets surrounded by mountains of high chaparral, which burns like crazy. It's an area highly prone to the Santa Ana winds. We got one of the worst Santa Ana windstorms back in late 2017, that burned everything including the houses. And now the building codes coming out of Ventura city hall, and I quote them in the book–and it's crazy–they're allowing people to still just go back and rebuild with the same materials.
It's good to be climate-conscious but we have to be aware that when the fires come, when the floods come and when the mud comes–and they will—we have to be better prepared for them. Instead of just concentrating on how to prevent the climate cycle shifts that we're seeing, which will take hundreds of years anyway, we need to start protecting ourselves now with better building codes and being more conscious where we decide to build.
For example, Houston's Hurricane Harvey was a far worse storm than Puerto Rico's Maria. However, the people of Houston recovered quickly; they had their lights on in days. People in Puerto Rico were dying for months after the storm because of the infrastructure. It took months for Puerto Rico to get the power restored. Instead of budgeting for wind-generated power and electric cars—which are fine and dandy–there has to be a heavy concentration immediately to start ramping up what we physically do to protect ourselves from storms that can't be stopped in the future.
buy “Surf, Flood, Fire & Mud” here.