Will We See Back-To-Back El Niño Seasons?

An expert update on where we're likely headed from here.

blacks by james tullOh, San Diego. You look good in blue. Photo: James Tull

Interview by Michael Ciaramella

Remember when you were a little kid, and your best friend would come and sleep over? You stayed up late playing ping-pong and Super Smash Bros™ and talking about how stupid girls were. The only thing you cared about was hanging out with your best pal. You might have even slept in the same bed.

Then morning rolled around, and the doorbell would ring. His mother, the gluten-free tyrant, was there to strip you of your fun. In a moment of panic, you and your amigo would make a beeline for the basement, hoping that a superb hiding spot and steadfast persistence would prolong your time together. You grabbed a few snacks in case of an extended hide-out.

“Carlos! I’m not playing with you! If I don’t see your bony, little butt up here in 10 seconds, you can say goodbye to your Playstation.” That sadistic bitch. With clearly no choice in the matter, Carlos trudged up the stairs as if trying to drive a hole in each floorboard.

This deflated, lamenting feeling is what most Californians are experiencing right now about saying goodbye to their best friend, El Niño. After nearly four months of consistently spectacular NW swell, El Niño has been removed by it’s volatile, contentious mother named Spring.

…Or has it?

We decided to talk with Nathan Cool, who is not only the owner of a great name, but also SURFING’s go-to meteorologist. Mr. Cool is an engineer by trade, but his passion for surfing led him to discover the science of wave forecasting, which led to his creation of Wavecast, which was later acquired by SURFING’s partner in surf forecasting, Swellwatch. Long story short, this guy knows his shit.

mavericks by seth de rouletMavericks, a hotbed of California El Niño action. Photo: Seth De Roulet

Surfing: So Dr. Cool, we just had an amazing run of surf over here, but the major NW swells have noticeably dissolved. What’s next for El Niño?

Cool: Well, first of all, El Niño isn’t necessarily going away. According to the models, there is actually a 50% percent chance that we will return to El Niño status this upcoming season. There is enough warm water left over in the Pacific that it is theoretically possible to have back-to-back El Niño seasons. However, most forecast specialists think the realistic number is closer to 30%.

Wow, that would be pretty miraculous. Tell me more about this warm water and how the whole thing works.

Cool: The equatorial Pacific always has large pocket of warm water, but it tends to be on the far western side, near Indonesia. El Niño occurs when that water makes its way eastward, riding uncommon westerly winds. Usually the Pacific has strong easterly trades that keep the warm stuff over there. But this year, a good chunk remains in the middle of the ocean.

So what about the summer season? What can we expect in terms of Southern Hemi swells and tropical storms?

Cool: Leading up to an El Niño winter, one of the main characteristics is that the Jetstream drops in latitude. This means that the Southern Hemi swells hang closer to Antarctica, further from us. To get big waves in California, we need the southern ocean swells to track northward, which is less likely during El Niño. Because El Niño is much weaker this year than last, the Jetstream has risen, which should theoretically mean more powerful southern hemi swells this coming season.

baja by Brock MorganSomewhere south of here. Photo: Brock Morgan

The tropics, on the other hand, should not produce as much swell as last year. As we know, tropical storms feed on warm water, which there is less of this upcoming season. We can expect some tropical activity, but certainly not as much as last year.

And what about our brothers and sisters on the east coast? Many of the northern regions experienced some great swells this winter. Is that attributable to El Niño?

Cool: To be honest, the east coast is a bit of a wildcard when it comes to El Niño. You could look at all the big storms that hit the northeast this winter and say, “Oh that’s because of El Niño,” but it’s really not that simple. There are a number of other factors that play into their weather patterns, so it would be hard to say definitively whether or not their swells were a direct result of El Niño.

And for their tropical predictions?

Cool: In the year leading up to El Niño, the east coast should experience a decrease in tropical activity, due in large part to the lowered Jetstream. When in the lower latitudes, the Jetstream will tear the tops off of tropical systems, thus rendering them much weaker. With El Niño weakening and the Jetstrem rising in latitude, there is a good chance that the east coast will experience stronger tropical activity this upcoming season.