Southern California surf has been close to non-existent over the last month, but you’d mistaken to think that coastal conditions across the world have been just as uneventful. Hurricane Maria devastated the Caribbean not long after Irma passed through — the destruction has displaced thousands, leaving entire communities without power. The violent weather has also led to tragedy in the lineup. Zander Venezia, a talented junior pro from Barbados, was killed in heavy surf earlier in the month. During a pumping stretch of surf in the Outer Banks last week, a 66-year-old surfer was found dead just north of Rodanthe, his board still attached to his ankle, his body floating face-down in the water.
As Maria fades north into the Atlantic’s periphery, we contacted Nathan Cool, SwellWatch forecaster, and asked him to make sense of the weeks ahead, including the weather in store for the East Coast, the odds of surf out west, and the possibility of a La Niña winter season.
What can we expect from what’s left of Hurricane Maria?
Maria is a storm that’s lingered. Some windswell was forecasted to build off the East Coast because of high pressure that's moving in, which has also helped to guide Maria off the coast. Now it's New England that's looking at getting the swell from Maria over the next few days. There's still a fair amount of wind that's causing some issues with the surf. But it's really close to shore. As far as precipitation goes, most of the rain is still really far out to sea. This really isn't impacting the coastline very much. It got just close enough to produce a lot of surf as it traversed up from the Carolinas, and now, going up a little farther north toward New England.
But when we talk about the hurricanes we've had this year, there's no comparison to what Puerto Rico is dealing with, or the Virgin Islands. When it comes to rain, it’s nothing like what Harvey produced. This was more of a blessing than a curse for us in producing surf, which we need to acknowledge. And it’s relatively dangerous surf, at that. People need to know what they're doing in this size of surf throughout the south.
Is the Caribbean in the clear?
All of those elements that came together weeks ago are dissipating now. When we talked a few weeks ago, Irma was the perfect storm, in a lot of ways. We had a strong Easterly Jet, we had the Burmuda High in the right place, we had extremely warm water temperatures, and then those storms were starting to spin off of Africa. But those storms are starting to fall apart right now.
Just to break it down: the African Easterly jet stream right now is so-so, meaning it's actually broken apart. There's not as much vorticity in that region, which means there's not as much pressure that's coming off of Africa. It's getting back what we'd consider a dull period. There's a little pop here and there, but there's nothing coming off and being guided westerly from the African Easterly jet. That, at least, is starting to calm down.
Another thing that's just starting to happen, too, is the Bermuda Azores High is getting pushed off to the east, and it's supposed to get pushed off to the east more in about a week, probably starting this weekend. We're got a real strong trough of low pressure that's starting to come down near the end of this week and the start of this weekend across the northern states. And that's going to go far into the Atlantic – we're talking almost Mid-Atlantic, where the trough is. When you have a trough, it pushes the high off to the side. And it's that Bermuda High that steers any storms that would come off of Africa into the African Easterly jet, and start spinning toward our Hurricane Alley.
What does that mean for surf along the East Coast?
The thing that is forming for the east coast that will bring about some surf — though it is fading — will be some more windswell. It's not as severe as what models were showing the other day, but the next regions that would be affected are probably from the Carolinas to the south, starting this weekend into early next week. That's from more localized activity from that trough that's going to be pushing down and then butting up against a real strong area of high pressure. So what's going to happen starting around Sunday is that swell will start to increase, according to the long range models, around South Carolina through Florida. Lots of windswell. This will be shorter period than what we had from Maria, and it should be coming in from an E-NE direction. That's because the same trough that's going to be pushing across the Northern States is going to push the Bermuda High out of the way to the east. It's going to then cause a strong wind gradient, a pressure gradient, for kicking up surf in that region.
Long-story short, even though it won’t be much hurricane surf, we can still see somewhat hazardous surf conditions that can affect the eastern coastlines of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina this week into early next week. The nice part of that is we're not looking at a lot of weather. The precipitation is just looking so-so. Obviously, Florida is always going to get some kind of precipitation. Florida might get a good dousing out of it, just because it's Florida.
Right now, the most promising surf is still hitting New England, for head-high conditions. Taking a look over the next few days, it will probably fade this weekend and into next week.
Do we have any hope in SoCal these next few days?
Windswell is kind of the name of the game this weekend. In Southern California, and even in Northern California, that's what we're looking at. We're really not looking at much until we start the weekend. Once the weekend rolls through, a lot of things change. Our weather pattern is going to shift, where the Santa Ana is going to fade, and as it does — and this is very typical this time of year, as high pressure exits to the east — in comes low pressure from the Gulf of Alaska, hitting against our coast. And when it does, it kicks up windswell.
We're looking at windswell by Sunday up in Northern California. It'll be steep-angle stuff, but it could get to be head-high. West-facing breaks are looking at table scraps, compared to what Northern California is going to get. By Sunday, we're looking at maybe waist- to chest-high.
For Southern California, we are looking at a possible Southern Hemisphere swell around the 5th and the 6th of October. I wouldn't say that it'll be epic surf, but still, it's something that could be chest to head-high for south-facing breaks. It could actually be the last Southern Hemispere swell of the season. There are hints that something could come off of Antarctica behind it, to keep things going for a few more days after that swell peaks. But we're really nearing the end of our Southern Hemi swell season.
What are the prospects of a La Niña winter right now?
We're tentatively seeing the effects of a weak La Niña. It's too early to say what's really going to happen, but one of the things we're seeing that's La Nina-esque is blocking high pressure building near the Gulf of Alska. It's not intense. It's not huge. Storms are trying to drop under the Bering Sea, but they get blocked and weaken, and we're not seeing NW swell. But there's a lot of activity on the long range that's spinning up off Kamchatka, out of the Bering Sea, so that blocking the high pressure that we're dealing with – if that can wane a little bit, then we might start seeing the incoming NW swells. But so far, the La Niña doesn't look to be that strong. Any blocking high pressure that comes out of the Gulf, which is typical this time of year, shouldn't be anything outrageous. We’ll be following the activity these next few months to see how it develops.