Throwback: A Week in Florida- March 2018

Florida

I work in Florida for a couple months each winter. Sometimes I’m conflicted. Florida provides an interesting place for new adventures and new ecosystems. Rocket launches at Cape Canaveral, The Everglades, Miami, gators, bald eagles and manatees, sometimes fun waves. However, winter waves are generally much better in San Diego than south Florida.

The winter surf of 2018 was historically dismal in Southern California. The winter surf of 2018 in Florida was possibly the greatest of all time. I had been in Florida for a few weeks prior. I usually go for a dawn swim a couple times a week regardless of the conditions. 40 minute drive to Juno Pier at 5am and make it to work at 10am. But I had been watching the surf forecast when a monster purple blob began to form.

Winter Storm Riley

Winter Storm Riley moved off the coast of Massachusetts on March 2nd and went through a period of explosive development known as bombogenesis. Unfortunately, wreaking havoc across New England and beyond.  On the morning of Sunday March 3rd, 1,200 miles south, I arrived at the Juno Pier at dawn. Nonstop waves were already breaking 100 yards past the end of the pier. The swell had definitely begun and wasn’t scheduled to peak for 2 days.

Juno Pier

This swell quickly became the most impressive I have experienced anywhere. Five days of overhead to double overhead waves without a lull. It was like a 5,000 wave set bombarded the coast. Most Florida surf spots were overpowered by the immense energy as the swell peaked but a few mythological spots lit up for a select few. Winds remained light and even went offshore for extended periods. 

I bodysurfed every morning and my employers were gracious enough to give me a day off to chase this incredible swell. I didn’t have to go too far. The closest beach to my hotel is a little nondescript beachbetween the Lake Worth Pier and West Palm Beach called Phipps Ocean Park. It was firing all week! Peaky lines of neon blue swell going below sea level and exploding on the sandbars. I also swam epic Delray Beach, pumping Jupiter Inlet and all-time, incredible Reef Road.
-KS

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Why? How? When?

Do you ever float in the Ocean wondering…

Why do waves come in sets? Why do sets come in sets? Why do some sets have 4 or 5 waves while others only have 1? How does a storm’s pressure gradient effect the consistency of a swell? When will swell come again? Why do some waves double-up and focus more energy onto the sandbar? How does the tide swing impact a shoaling wave? Why does wave energy refract toward shallower water? How does sand move bank to bank? Why do some evenings glassoff and others don’t? When will swell come again? How does turbulence from previous waves affect the shoaling of the next wave? Where is the best wave on Earth breaking right now? How do islands and offshore features affect swell approaching a coastline? Am I missing a better wave breaking nearby? How does wind and upwelling impact water temperature? How does water temperature affect swell production? Why do seasonal changes change the areas of Ocean that generate swell? How does coastal geology impact bathymetry? How does coastal ecology impact bathymetry? When will swell come again? Will climate disruption equal more swell? What’s more important for swell: size of the storm, duration of the storm or direction? Does a storm in the Indian Ocean eventually create swell in the South Pacific? What happens when different swell trains cross in the middle of the Ocean? Does a storm in the North Pacific become a winter storm in Cleveland, then a Nor’easter on the US east coast and then eventually a swell for Europe? Do Pacific hurricanes originate in Sahara dust off the coast of Africa? Are all low pressure systems connected? When will swell come again? Are the cobbles always on the beach but covered with sand or do they move beach to beach? Are the swell generating systems in our Oceans connected on a macro scale? How important are the micro-connections of capillary waves to the formation of a swell? As the sun goes through 8 year cycles of activity, does swell production increase and decrease accordingly? What did the waves look like breaking on beaches during the time of supercontinent Pangea? What will waves look like 100 million years from now? Where have the biggest and best waves broken in the history of Earth? How do the properties of individual water molecules impact the formation of swell? Does salinity affect swell production? When will swell come again?
-KS

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
1/24/16

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.

-KS

Spoiled

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. 

Solid.
Solid.

-KS

Purple Blob Report: Summer & Fall 2015

A strengthening El Nino, record breaking water temperatures and the most intense storm in the history of the Western Hemisphere. Summer 2015 was a dynamic and interesting meteorological season. From May-October, at least 2 swells came monthly, making for a solid surf season.

The 2015 South Swell Season started early with a healthy dose of southern hemi swell in late March.

South Swell with NW windswell- March 28, 2015
South Swell with NW windswell- March 28, 2015

Back to back, steep, south swells impacted California in early May. The second swell packed a serious punch with 25 second periods! Unfortunately, the angle was steep and persistent north wind made the conditions less than ideal. Although, there were fun windows of well overhead, heavy surf.

The 2015 Eastern Pacific Hurricane season witnessed a record breaking 30 depressions, 26 named storms, a record 16 hurricanes and a record 11 major hurricanes. Including the all-time strongest storm, Hurricane Patricia on October 23rd.   With sustained 200 mph winds, if the scale extended, she would’ve been a Category 7! This monster veered away from destroying Puerto Vallarta, Mexico at the last moment, instead impacting a far less populated area of the Mexican coast.

For the first time in recorded history, 3 major hurricanes, Kilo, Ignacio and Jimena spun simultaneously in late August. They sent a plethora of swell throughout the Pacific, especially to Hawaii.

Late summer/fall through October, saw a very active southern hemisphere storm track and a series of strong pulses of swell.

Overall, Summer/Fall of 2015 was a solid season, with consistent pulses from the Southern Hemisphere and a record breaking tropical season. Record breaking water temperatures kept wetsuits in the closet until November. Most mornings and evenings had good offshore/glassy conditions.

Unfortunately, November 2015 is the worst month of surf in a couple years. However, El Nino is real, so go ahead and get excited about this coming winter!

-KS

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.