Drizzly, flat, cold-water, south-wind mornings aren’t exactly the stuff surf dreams are made of, but for the past month or so, that’s what’s been on tap for area surfers. Besides the odd dose of waist- to chest-high surf and a rare sunny day or two, the last gasp of winter and early throes of spring have been disappointing to say the least.
“I’ve surfed once in the last month,” confided one hopeless friend.
“I don’t know if I even surf anymore,” pondered another.
Judging by the Surfline forecast, by the time you read this, we may have just enjoyed a fun-sized southern pulse—let’s hope it fills in bigger and more consistent than the models are predicting.
Looking out a little further, reason to hope could be on the horizon. Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that El Niño conditions will likely develop in the Pacific Ocean this summer.
“A watch is issued when conditions are favorable for the development of El Niño within the next six months,” reads NOAA’s announcement. “While we are still in an ENSO-neutral phase—when no El Niño or La Niña are present—there is a 62% chance El Niño will develop sometime between May and July. This comes after nearly two continuous years of a La Niña.”
“El Niño chances increase even more a couple of months later, as the three-month period centered on August now has 80% odds versus 56% last month,” according to a Reuters article.
El Niño conditions occur when bands of warm ocean water develop in the central and east-central equatorial Pacific. The warmer sea surface temps typically result in above-average precipitation, as well as other weather events, including large west swells.
Meanwhile, La Niña conditions feature water temperatures that are sufficiently cooler than normal. As NOAA notes, La Niña conditions have persisted for the past two years, which would explain why this spring has been so cold—and flat.
The last El Niño we saw was back in 2015-2016. Before that, 1997-1998 and 1982-1983 stand out as historic El Niño winters. NOAA estimates mild El Niño conditions appear an average of every four years, while “super” El Niños occur every 15 to 20 years.
“We’re due one. However, the magnitude of the predicted El Niños shows a very large spread, everything from blockbuster to wimp,” NOAA research scientist Dr. Mike McPhaden told The Guardian.
“The really big ones reverberate all over the planet with extreme droughts, floods, heat waves, and storms. If it happens, we’ll need to buckle up. It could also fizzle out. We should be watchful and prepared either way,” continued McPhaden.
Based on current water temperature readings off the coast of Peru and in other strategic regions in the Pacific, “a few forecasters see a possible Super El Niño in 2023,” reports Reuters. “It is among the most aggressive outlooks.”
That being said, an El Niño in 2023 is not a foregone conclusion. Above-average water temps need to hold for a few months before it can be officially confirmed that we’re in an El Niño.
“It’s a tricky time of year to forecast, but we do see consistency amongst international climate models of warming towards El Niño levels,” NOAA climatologist Catherine Ganter told The Guardian.
Coming off a year that saw historic rain and snowfall throughout California, the potential of a looming El Niño means we could see a lot more wet weather, along with all the subsequent disasters that follow.
As surfers, we’re born storm chasers, and with the heartache often comes some amazing moments in the ocean. Fingers crossed that we see more west swells and less flooding next winter.