You may have heard some reference to this winter as being affected by the “El Niño”. So, just what is that? And how does it affect surfing in Oregon?
The term “El Niño” is used to describe one of several large-scale oscillations in ocean surface water temperature and atmospheric pressure that occur naturally around the earth. It is characterized by unseasonably warm temperatures in the equatorial Pacific, currently running about 1-3°C above normal.
The normal state of the equatorial Pacific Ocean would show sea surface temperatures in the West about 8°C warmer than in the East. This is due to the trade winds that blow from the east, literally piling up warm water near Indonesia, where sea level is about 0.5 m higher than near Ecuador. As the warm water is pushed west, cold, nutrient rich water upwells along the South American west coast, supporting very productive fisheries and a diverse ecosystem.
For some reason that is not well understood, every 3 – 5 years, the trade winds weaken, and that pile of warm water begins to slide “downhill”, back toward South America, and temperatures east of the date line begin to rise. Because air rising over warm water causes precipitation, the normally arid regions of Peru, Chile, and the Galapagos get the rain that should have occurred in Indonesia and Australia. In fact, precipitation in the tropics changes from the Eastern Indian Ocean, east to the tropical Atlantic during the El Niño condition. Also, atmospheric pressure in all the tropics is affected, and global air circulation changes in both hemispheres, far from the region of increased sea surface temperature. The bulging mass of warmed air over the west coast of South America causes changes in mid-latitude jet streams, and THAT can change our weather here on the Oregon coast.
During winter, the jet streams that drive our weather normally bring Pacific storms to our shores, making the Northwest a damp and cool place. During an El Niño, the jet carrying rain to central America is nudged north toward California, we may get California’s lovely weather, and coastal B.C. and Alaska may be warmer and wetter. Usually the U.S. southwest is wetter, and Australia burns.
Well, so far this year’s El Niño is not living up to the hype as far as delivering nice weather and surf to us. Sure, Australia is dry with wildfires; Arizona is getting lots of snow (162% of normal), while our snowpack (65%) is well below normal. Even the sea lions have left Pier 39 in San Francisco Bay, probably chasing anchovies moving north to cooler water. You can find them now near Haceta Head, Oregon, where some 5000 arrived last month. But why am I not wearing sunglasses? Other than that cold, dry episode back in early December, and a few nice days around Christmas, we’re looking pretty wet. And I’m not surfing much.
Speaking of surfing, why does all this matter to Oregon surfers? If you’ve been here during winter, you know that one thing we have in abundance is waves. See one of my earlier stories on that. Then, with plenty of waves, the only thing keeping us out of the water is the conditions locally. When those line up in a favorable combination, we’re surfing!
So when El Niño is governing the global weather machine, chances for good surfing conditions in Oregon improve.
Watch the jet stream aim the Pacific storm track at Southern California, or B.C., and see us enjoying blue skies and east winds. The ocean here turns from that angry, grey giant, into a smooth, deep blue gem that demands a surf, or at least a walk on the beach.
Have a safe visit!
Tom McNamara has been surfing since 1965. Tom is a well respected Oregon surfer and surfboard maker. Tom, with his partner Greg Niles, co-owns Ocean Pulse Surf and Skate in Newport Oregon. To get in touch with Tom, Greg or any of their knowledgeable staff call them at 541-265-7745 or visit them at www.oceanpulsesurf.com. For the real deal stop by their store located at 428 SW Coast Hwy Newport, Oregon.