El Niño: A Surfer’s Dream or Nightmare?


With the warm water and coming rain and storms, will El Niño be a godsend for surfers, or will the negatives outweigh the benefits? It is hard to answer that question with complete certainty, but some predictions can be made. It is important to remember that one high pressure system from the North can ruin the whole party.

What is it?
One fact to keep in mind is that the El Niño creates forecasts, not weather patterns themselves. The warm water, combined with high pressure in the western Pacific and low pressure in the eastern Pacific, can cause cooler and wetter winters in California, with more chance of flooding in Southern California and more mild storms to the north. This can increase surf, but can cause rip currents and other dangerous conditions. Some of the effects of these conditions have already been seen in the record-setting amount of large named hurricanes in the Pacific.

Why should surfers care?
Now back to the central question: what does this mean for surfers? If you look at El Niños historically, they have led to major swells. If the comparisons to the last major El Niño event hold, the swells in the western United States should be well above average, with more westerly angles. For surfers in the Eastern United States, this is probably bad news, as the El Niño conditions will more than likely mean less or smaller swells than average. Surfers in Hawaii may have the largest swells of all, since the proximity of the Jetstream and the warmer waters causing the El Niño event should combine to create extra large swells.

All of this is a mixed bag, especially since the largest swells in western North America will be from the northwest into Canada. Indonesia and some of the Polynesian islands will also see some of the largest swells, if the forecasts are correct. It would seem that conditions in Australia will be lower than average, as the southern parts of the Pacific usually see higher wave activities in La Nina years.

Be Prepared
One thing a surfer can be sure of is that the El Niño will cause changes in the swells from previous years. Those changes will vary, depending on where you will be surfing, but it would seem that some of the best surf will be in the western US and Canada, Hawaii and Indonesia. It is important to know your limits and abilities in order to determine whether or not you should paddle out. The changes in weather conditions should really become apparent in January. Beyond that, for surfers in California, the amount of rain possible can cause unsafe conditions on the beach, but this only happens once every 10 years or so…do you really want to miss it?

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