Purple Blob Report: Winter 2016 *In Memoriam

Winter 2016. One of the greatest seasons of Purple Blobs in the history of waveriding. El Niño 2016: we’ll never forget you. We’ll mythologize you. All future seasons will be compared and likely fall short of your glory. We miss you already. We were spoiled by your consistency. Watching the North Pacific slow down is heartbreaking. 

Jan. 24, 2016

It became mindless. A constant cycle of surf, eat, work, surf, eat, sleep, surf. Over and over, everyday for 2.5 months. I stopped checking forecasts…there were waves and there’d be waves.

There wasn’t a super-mega-decadal swell but it was consistent and solid. The small days still had occasional head-high sets. The actual swell events, and there were a dozen or so, were frequently double-overhead. Big wave surfers raced back and forth between Maui, Oahu, Europe and California. Jaws saw an all-time year of massive, paddlable days. The Eddie could have run more than once and finally ran in maxed out 25+ surf at Waimea. Mavericks had arguably the best day ever.

Forget the endless summer, we all crave the Endless Winter.

November was a dismal month. All the hype surrounding El Niño had waveriders scratching their heads waiting for an early winter start. Then it happened, December 11th 2015, a very solid pulse of NW energy slammed the California coast.

NPAC early December 2015: StormSurf, SwellWatch, Surfline, MagicSeaweed.
NPAC- early December 2015: StormSurf, SwellWatch, Surfline, MagicSeaweed.

The torrential rain didn’t materialize as we’d all hoped to quench California’s drought thirst. February saw many 80° days without a cloud in sight and light winds persisted. The constant pounding of substantial groundswell did have serious impacts of our coastlines. Sandbars washed away and cliffs crumbled. 

2016 began with immense optimism for waveriders. All indicators continued to point towards a strong El Niño in the equatorial Pacific. January did not disappoint. A conveyor belt of strong storms crossed the North Pacific. 

Powerful jet stream- early Jan. 2016. Image: NOAA
Powerful jet stream- early Jan. 2016. Image: NOAA

January ended with a powerful wind storm bombarding Southern California. Sideways rain and wind gusts over 50mph brought tree damage and large storm surf.

February 2016 continued the consistency of surf but also included the aforementioned stellar conditions.

Spring 2016 is off to a good start with a series of south swells with combo NW swell mixing in, although the wind isn’t always cooperating. May looks to start with an active South Pacific storm track. Hopefully, spring/summer 2016 can pick up where the stellar winter 2016 left off. The water remained warm throughout the winter so possibly, we’ll have an active East Pacific tropical season.  Here’s to continued pumping swell!

Nothing gold can stay.
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
–Robert Frost–1923

Nothing gold can stay.
Nature’s first swell is gold.
Her hardest energy to hold.
Her early barrel is round;
Until it runs aground.
So the sea sank to grief,
It now seems so brief.
So El Niño turns to summer.
Such a bummer.
Nothing gold can stay.

I’m not sure if 1923 was an El Niño year but Robert Frost touched on the feeling surfers have as an epic El Niño winter comes to an end. The surf wasn’t going to pump forever. Nothing gold can stay.


Ode to El Niño

Warm Equatorial waters
Southerly jet stream
Conveyor belt of large storms,
Marching across the North Pacific
Barrier-breaking, big wave paddle sessions are the norm each week.

Busy Buoys: NOAA
Busy Buoys: NOAA

Week after week of weekend swells,
Building in through the day on Friday.
Pumping by Friday evening.
Peaking Saturday morning and still pumping on Sunday.
Overhead sets lingering on Monday.AR8A5568

It is difficult to finish this publication.
Sleep, swim, eat, swim, swim, eat, sleep.
Maybe some work, but mostly bodysurfing.
And thinking about waves.
And watching wave models.


And it’s world-wide:
Gold Coast, Aus point breaks.
Massive Europe.
East Coast USA: double overhead, 12ft and perfect.

Marathon sessions, full body exhaustion.
Lazy towards the end,
Not getting to the spot.
Going over the falls,
Not diving deep enough.
Beatings and poundings.AR8A6573

High pressure, sunny skies, 80°
Offshore or glassy in the morning
Minimal onshores through the afternoon.
Although, not enough rain.
We need more rain. 

But selfishly, we’re smiling.
Exhausted, sore, beat up…but smiling.
Spending hours underwater,
Taking exhilarating sets on the head.
Considerable amount of tube time.
Hope it never stops. 





El Niño is real. As predicted, a series of solid swells are producing substantial surf throughout the North Pacific. The jet stream is firmly established in a southerly position and a seemingly nonstop train of WestNorthWest swells are marching across the NPAC region. Are you tired yet?

Powerful Jet Stream Image: NOAA
Powerful Jet Stream Image: NOAA

A couple months ago, I wrote a piece called Swell Affective Disorder. The month of November 2015 was dismal for California surf and I was feeling the effects. Fast forward 2 months and it’s been head high+ for almost 3 weeks straight. We are spoiled. The entire North Pacific is drenched in swell. A new affliction is beginning to affect some waveriders: swell fatigue. Many chest high waves go unridden in between overhead swells. Waves that a dozen people would fight over in July, break empty during an El Niño winter.

Nobody around.
Nobody around.

Arms are tired, backs are sore. Head’s full of water. Wetsuits smell terrible.  A chest high wave isn’t as exciting when it was 10ft last weekend and another solid swell is coming in a couple days. “Surfed out” is a real thing. Drive down the coast and check your local spots. Even the most popular might have a significant decrease of heads in the water.

You have to go out . Remember flat spells? Remember how it feels after 2 weeks of weak surf? Remember how you crave the Ocean’s energy? There it is. Right out front, right now. Fill your Vision bank. You’ll wish you had this much swell come July. Nothing gold can stay. It will go flat again. The long range forecast will go quiet. And you’ll be left with nothing but the memories of pumping El Nino surf. Always take advantage of swell when it hits your local shore. 



El Niño w/Mark Sponsler

*Mark Sponsler is the creator of StormSurf.com, “a website dedicated to delivering the highest quality marine weather data to those who ride waves.” Sponsler’s weekly forecast videos focus on El Nino indicators year round, regardless of media hype. 

El Nino can have profound effects on global weather and ocean conditions. Under normal conditions, trade winds over the equatorial Pacific blow from east to west (Peru towards Asia). This causes warm water to sequester near Asia, and cool water to upwell off Peru. This in turn results in high pressure over the cool  water off Peru (producing stable atmospheric conditions) while low pressure and tropical precipitation locks down off Asia.

Comparison of strong El Ninos.
Comparison of strong El Ninos.

But about once every 7 years, the trade winds over the equator relax if not reverse direction, with the effect being a flow that travels reverse of the normal direction, or from west to east (Asia towards Peru). When the trades relax or weaken, this situation is know as westerly anomalies. That is, compared to normal for the time of year, the winds have a westerly component to them  And when trades fully reverse (they start blowing from the west to the east), this is known as a Westerly Wind Burst (WWB).

A Westerly WInd Burst across the equatorial Pacific Ocean.
A Westerly Wind Burst across the equatorial Pacific Ocean.

WWBs can last for 10-20 days and can blow as hard as 20+ kts. This situation typically occur between New Guinea and the International dateline. When a WWB occurs, it sets the oceans surface in motion moving to the east. The result is warm water off Asia starts migrating east across the tropical Pacific towards Peru. WWBs also typically spawn tropical cyclones, sometimes straddling both sides of the equator simultaneously. Typically the westerly anomaly/WWB cycle starts in Spring or early Summer, with a single WWB, followed by 2-4 more through early Fall, with the warmest waters reaching Ecuador around Christmas.

The warm water doesn’t flow from west to east on the surface. It falls to depth, down about 200 meters, forming a pocket or bubble of anomalously warm water (+7 degs C above normal). That pocket is called a Kelvin Wave, and it travels west to east under the equator for 2.5 months before being forced to the surface first as it encounters the Galapagos Islands, then eventually impacts Ecuador.  For each WWB that occurs during the EL Nino cycle, a corresponding Kelvin Wave develops.  The more WWBs, the more Kelvin Waves, and the greater the warming in the east.

Sucessive Kelvin Waves
Sucessive Kelvin Waves

As a Kelvin Wave erupts in the East Pacific, it warms surface water there, and typically pretty dramatically. This in turn has effects on fisheries and wildlife, especially in the Galapagos, Peru, Central American corridor.  Where normally cold upwelled nutrient rich waters are present, now a warmer and far less bountiful food chain is present for fish.  Fish stocks leave the area. Local economies that survive off fishing turn non-productive.

Eventually these warm waters, as they erupt near the Galapagos start migrating west by prevailing trades over the East Pacific, moving towards the dateline. Note – the trades don’t completely dissipate in the east. As this cycle progresses, a defined warm water ‘tongue’ develops extending from the Galapagos east and within 5 degrees north and south of the equator reaching west to the the dateline.  Depending how warm the surface pool gets and how much area it covers compared to normal determines whether the situation will qualify to be labeled as El Nino. The area of concern is from 5N to 5S and from 120W to 170W, the NINO3.4 area. If temps in this region hold at +0.5 deg C above normal for 3 months, it considered a minimal El Nino.  At the top end temps of +1.5 result in a classification of a strong El Nino. As of the Sept monthly reading, this years event was at +1.67 degs C.  In comparison, the two strongest El Ninos at their peak in Dec/Jan were at +2.32 (’97/98) and +2.21 (’82/83).  Theses were considered Super El Ninos. This years event is already the 6th strongest El Nino ever (as of Sept), and building. And it is tracking mid-way on it’s development path between the ’82/83 and the ’97/98 events, making it possible it too could reach Super El Nino status.

As the surface warm pool builds, it starts interacting with the atmosphere above it, enabling greater evaporation and increasing humidity levels, reducing surface air pressure and increasing the odds for rain in locations of the planet typically bone dry.  Likewise as water cools over Asia, surface air pressure builds and drought sets in. Precipitation follows the warmer water across the Pacific, resulting in a complete reversal of the Pacific Basin weather patten.

Hoping for a winter full of this.
Hoping for a winter full of this.

From a surf perspective, the weather changes associated with El Nino are most pronounced in Fall and Winter months in the Northern Hemisphere. The warm pool feeds more energy into the jetstream, which in turns causes the jet to track further south forming a strong semi-permanent low pressure system just east of the dateline and south of the Aleutians easing into the Gulf of Alaska. The upper level energy feeds development of larger, stronger and more consistent storms tracking across the Norther Pacific, which in turn generates larger, stronger and more consistent surf aimed at breaks in which the jetstream is flowing towards, like Hawaii, California, the Pacific Northwest, Mexico. But because the jetstream is further south, it also offers the specter of much rain and stormy local conditions, making surf conditions less than ideal. During pronounced episodes during strong El Nino years, the jetstream can drive storm energy straight from Siberia clear across the Pacific and directly into the US, often tracking right into normally drier regions of Central and Southern California. This can bring significant rain and snowfall to regions that are typically desert like, having severe economic and ecologic affects. In the Atlantic, the El Nino enhanced jetstream creates upper level shear that suppresses hurricane production.

Sea Surface Temperature Anomalies- Oct. 17, 2015.
Sea Surface Temperature Anomalies- Oct. 17, 2015.

So El Nino can be a mixed blessing, depending on where you live.

After El Nino has run it’s course, typically in the early summer following it’s peak, a new pattern emerges: La Nina that has almost the opposite effect. Colder than normal water starts to develop in the eastern equatorial Pacific in the mid summer as the trades start raging from east to west (Peru to Asia). Strong high pressure rebuilds over the eastern equatorial Pacific while low pressure follows the warm waters being blown back towards Asia. By Christmas time the year following El Nino, the North Pacific jetstream is displaced well north, driving up towards the Aleutians into Alaska and northern Canada, and high pressure dominates the NE Pacific pattern. As a result storm and swell production starts to decrease.  And the whole cycle is then set to start again.

Purple Blob Report: Summer 2014

Newport Point- Hurricane Simon
Newport Point- Hurricane Simon

Record breaking Pacific Tropical season, solid Southern Hemisphere energy, early start for the Northern Hemisphere, warm water, moderate winds, clear skies: the 2014 summer surf season was/is phenomenal. An all-timer, a comparison for epic summers of the future, literally one for the record books. Wave-riders are battered and rashed… but smiling in remembrance of summer and excitement for winter.

Velella velella
Velella velella

 Summer has the potential for weak storm tracks and minimal swell. Last summer was terrible. This summer was special. Purple blobs sent swell from various directions. Minimal marine layer allowed for plentiful sunny days.  Four thunderstorms graced San Diego in July and August. The water temperature moved into the 70’s in June and remained mostly trunkable well into October. The appearance of millions of velella velella- aka- ‘by-the-wind sailors’ on our beaches was seen as a positive omen by many water-people. Peter Hamann of San Diego Fishing Adventures says, “This summer was exceptional! The warm water allowed fish that normally stay deeper south to move north and provide us with amazing fishing.”

The 2014 Pacific Hurricane Season is one of the strongest since accurate measuring began in 1971. The Accumulated Cyclone Energy or ACE index, which measures overall storm energy, sees 2014 at 45% above the average as of press time. The season doesn’t officially end until Nov. 30th. SwellWatch forecaster, Nathan Cool remarks, “I’ve never seen so many hurricanes form in the NE Pacific in one year that took a northward trajectory, bringing not just swell to SoCal, but also torrential rain to inland areas.”  With 21 tropical storms, 15 hurricanes and 9 major hurricanes, 2014 compares favorably with the benchmark 1992 season.

Notice the "Record Warmest" off the coast of Central America where storms form and off Baja where storms enter the SoCal swell window.  Photo: NOAA
Notice the “Record Warmest” off the coast of Central America where storms form and off Baja where storms enter the SoCal swell window. Image: NOAA

Very warm water in the entire Eastern Pacific and low wind shear in the upper atmosphere fed a healthy storm track moving westward off the coast of Central America. The season started fast as Hurricane Amanda formed on May 24th. June and July combined for 5 tropical storms but nothing substantial. Then August exploded.

Hurricane Genevieve started in the East Pacific, then passed through all three North Pacific basins. She strengthened into a Category 4 hurricane south of Hawaii and was reclassified as Super Typhoon Genevieve after passing over the International Dateline. She then moved north and met her demise over cool water.  Hurricane Iselle followed, moving west and reaching Category 4 status. On Aug. 7th, she (now a tropical storm) was the strongest tropical cyclone to ever make landfall on the Big Island of Hawaii.  Next, Hurricane Julio strengthened into a Category 3 as he moved to the NE of Hawaii, delivering fun surf to places unaccustomed to such tropical swell. Hurricanes Karina and Lowell reached category 1 status as they moved into the California swell window. Lowell delivered a fun sized pulse of tropical swell that was a hint of things to come.

Aug. 7th- Four Hurricanes in the North Pacific  Photo: Global Wind Map
Aug. 7th- Four Hurricanes in the North Pacific. Image: Global Wind Map

Beginning on Aug. 10th, the National Hurricane Center monitored a tropical wave as it moved off the coast of Africa and across the Atlantic Ocean. Nine days later, a low pressure system crossed over Panama into the Pacific. Above average water temperatures and low wind shear allowed for rapid intensification and on Aug. 22nd, the NHC classified her Tropical Storm Thirteen-E.  Just six hours later, she became Marie. Moving into the SoCal swell window on a N-WNW track, she strengthened into a Category 5 hurricane with 160mph winds on Aug. 24th.  


On the evening of Tuesday the 26th, abnormally long, 18” tropical forerunners began to show at south facing beaches that could handle the SSE direction. First light, Big Wednesday, the 27th: 25ft. Wedge freight trains off the Jetty, perfect 12ft. Malibu reeling past the Pier, 15ft. Newport Point as good as California gets. The wind stayed down for the rest of the day and everyone near the coast was treated to a decadal spectacle of Ocean power and beauty.


Hurricane Odile approaching Baja. Photo NASA
Hurricane Odile approaching Baja. Photo NASA

Two weeks later, Hurricane Odile made landfall on the Baja Peninsula as the strongest storm ever to do so, with 125mph winds on Sep.15th. The widespread damage to Cabo San Lucas is a terrible reminder that these storms aren’t just fun swell producers but also extremely powerful and dangerous.  Hurricane Simon strengthened and took a favorable swell producing path during early October.  Tuesday the 7th saw another round of solid, clean hurricane swell lighting up Newport Point and Wedge. 

The Southern Hemisphere filled in the gaps nicely between hurricanes with consistent SW swell. There were no real standout southern hemi swells but it wasn’t dormant either. With a bit of patience, fun sets were always on their way… eventually.  Locally fun swell for southern exposures meant the surf rarely dropped below waist-high for weeks at a time. A glorious, fire-free Santa Ana wind event with pulsing SW swell lit up the California coast in early October. Even the North Pacific pitched in with a series of early season swells derived from typhoon remnants off the coast of Japan. 

Santa Ana dreams.
Santa Ana dreams.

Here are reviews from two Newport locals that have been in tune with summer surf for more than 50 years combined:

-Wedge Historian Mel Thoman says, “I’ve been recording “Wedge Calendars” since 1978 and that year remains #1 for size/shape/number of swells/conditions etc. 2014 made my Top 10 by the end of August and then vaulted into the Top 3 by October. It’s 2 or 3 for sure. The whole Crew charged hard with great vibes in and out of the water.”

Newport Summer 2014 Photo: Ron Romanosky
Newport Summer 2014 Photo: Ron Romanosky

-Long-time Wedge observer and pundit, Ron Romanosky, gave this review of 2014: ”This last summer’s swells rank among the top 5 in the last 3 or 4 decades.  Fantastic weather kept the waves rideable from first to last light far more than usual.  And let’s not forget the warm water!  By their performance in big waves, several of the young guns of Wedge bodysurfing now reside at the top of the list of Wedge’s top dogs. They/we know who they are.”

Purple Blob Review: Summer 2014
-No major Southern Hemis but plenty of swell around even between the epic tropical pulses.
-Sunny skies, warm water, minimal on-shore flow…yes please.
-One of the largest, most intense summer swells in California surf history and a series of other very solid swells. Not much else to ask for out of a summer season.
Overall- 5/5
-An all-time classic.

Winter 2014/2015 Forecast

To El Niño or not El Niño?  Eastern Pacific sea surface temperatures have fluctuated over the past few months and with them the predictions for El Niño. From very strong to moderate back to strong. My prediction: This is the beginning of a 3 year El Niño cycle. Starting moderate this year with low pressure dominating the Gulf of Alaska; bringing abundant NW winter swells to California and Hawaii. Along with reservoir-filling precipitation and feet of powder to all slopes. Then another strong tropical summer in 2015 and an epically strong El Niño winter next year. Pumping swell for years to come!

National Hurricane Center
Surfline- Hurricane Marie
Wikipedia- 2014 Pacific Hurricane Season