Surfline's Exciting El Niño Outlook

Surfline Lead Forecasters

There has been one major change since our last update: the East Coast defied all odds and went off.

Surfline's Kevin Wallis Talks El Niño
Lead Surfline Forecaster discusses the latest El Niño findings. How will it compare to historical events?

Overall, the Pacific tropics slowed down since our last update, especially in the East and Central Pacific, but the West Pacific had some active moments. Meanwhile, known climate signals associated with strong El Niño events continue to point towards an active winter surf season for many locations.

However, it cannot be stressed enough that no two El Niños are the same. We still have to predict storms and waves as we always have in the short term, and unexpected events will undoubtedly still occur. Here's the latest info from our team:

Latest El Niño Forecast from the Climate Prediction Center:
As of Thursday, October 8, there is a 95 percent chance that El Niño will continue through the 2015-16 winter before gradually weakening through spring 2016. In addition, the CPC states that the current "atmospheric and oceanic anomalies reflect a strong El Niño." The consensus of the climate models favor a strong El Niño event, with peak intensity expected in the late fall/early winter.

Latest Relevant Sea Surface Temperature Anomaly Data:
The most commonly used area to identify El Niño conditions is the so-called "Niño 3.4 region" that covers the equatorial Pacific region between 120-170W. Data from September shows that water temps in this region increased to near 2.5C above normal, which is an indication of a strong El Niño. In addition, we continue to see a lot of above normal water temps off the West Coast and around Hawaii.

Recent water temps for SoCal continue to hang in the boardshort range. Recent water temps for SoCal continue to hang in the boardshort range. - WSL

One thing we want to highlight is the glaring colder-than-normal water temps in the North Atlantic, between Newfoundland and Western Europe. While not super relevant to El Niño, these values stick out like a sore thumb. NOAA announced that the first eight months of 2015 were the hottest on record (since 1880) -- except for this zone in the north central Atlantic. Some scientists fear this is related to the slowing of the Atlantic Ocean circulation due to the injection of cold, fresh water associated with the melting of Greenland due to climate change (read more about this here).

How this El Niño Stacks Up vs. Famous Past Events:
One great way to measure El Niño is through the so-called "Oceanic Nino Index" (ONI) - -or the three-month, running mean of SST anomalies in the Niño 3.4 region. The latest ONI values for July through September are 1.5°C above normal, which wins the bronze medal behind 1987 (1.6°C) and 1997 (1.7°C). Other indices that take into account the atmospheric response, along with the SST anomalies, place this year's strong El Niño in either second or third place. In other words, we are in the middle of one of the strongest El Niños on record.

Comparison of the existing El Niño to past strong events. In short, we're in the middle of one of the strongest El Niño's in recorded history. Comparison of the existing El Niño to past strong events. In short, we're in the middle of one of the strongest El Niños in recorded history. - WSL

Recent Surf Trends:
Hurricane Joaquin reminded us that it only takes one good swell event to produce memorable results during an El Niño year, which typically leads to below normal hurricane, and thus swell, activity during the East Coast tropical season. However, the East Coast and Caribbean swell run over the last few weeks was not solely driven from the tropics. It was enhanced by fronts and very strong high pressure that moved through New England and Eastern Canada, generating a lot of strong E/NE winds over the Western Atlantic. Stay tuned to Surfline for more coverage of the late September/early October magic that occurred on the right Coast.

Meanwhile, things really slowed down for much of California after the Hurricane Linda swell, both with respect to tropical swells and southern hemi events. A notable increase in southern hemi swell is ongoing though -- please monitor our forecasts for details. Out of the five tropical systems that developed since our last update (TD 16-E, TS Malia, TS Niala, Hurricane Marty, TD 8C, and Hurricane Oho), Oho is by far the most interesting. Oho is one of the northernmost hurricanes we've ever seen and took a rare northeast track. The storm generated sizable surf for exposed spots on the Big Island and also has swell en route to the West Coast. Check for more details here.

Track of recent Hurricane Oho (grey northerly track) overlaid on historical hurricane tracks (Category 1 only) during El Niño events. Oho was a rare bird.  Images: CPHC Oho track superimposed on historical hurricane data from NOAA CSC. Track of recent Hurricane Oho (grey northerly track) overlaid on historical hurricane tracks (Category 1 only) during El Niño events. Oho was a rare bird. Images: CPHC Oho track superimposed on historical hurricane data from NOAA CSC. - WSL / NOAA CSC

Finally, there have been four typhoons in the West Pacific since mid-September that generated swell for exposed portions of Asia and the surrounding islands. These storms also brought treacherous weather impacts to some locations as well. One could argue that the Central and West Pacific have been the hotspots for tropical swell activity during this year's strong El Niño event.

Elsewhere, the most notable sea level pressure anomalies over the last month have been above normal pressures near and south of Australia. This anomaly extends over a large stretch of the South Pacific as well. This is fairly common during El Niño, and overall, can be correlated to less substantial swell activity in these zones. We did see some small areas of below normal pressure in the Southern Indian Ocean though, which correlates to the continued great run of surf for Indo and West Oz. However, the pressure anomalies were not significant, suggesting that on average, this is just a good time for those regions.

Latest Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE) Values:

  1. Atlantic -- 65 percent of normal tropical activity to date (up from 48% since last month's update, thanks mostly to Joaquin, but still below normal)
  2. East and Central North Pacific - 192 percent of normal tropical activity to date (down from 219 percent last month)
  3. Western North Pacific - 160% of normal tropical activity to date (down from 221 percent last month)

Surf Outlook for Next 1-2 Months:
During the fall seasons of the strong El Niño events in 1982 and 1997, we saw some enhanced (non-tropical) storm/swell activity in the North Pacific, especially in the Gulf of Alaska region. However, the enhanced wave/swell activity from the North Pacific that we've come to expect during El Niño years is most enhanced deeper into the winter seasons (December through February).

The same can be said for windswell events in the Gulf, Southeast, and Caribbean due to the enhanced southern branch of the jet stream that occurs during El Niño. Regardless, we do expect above normal chances for enhanced North Pacific swell to impact the West Coast (but not as high for Hawaii), along with above normal chances for non-tropical windswell events for the Gulf and Southeast regions over the next 30-45 days.

While climatology is starting to act against us with tropical systems as we near winter -- we expect there to be another one to two appreciable tropical swells through the end of the Pacific hurricane season. Below normal chances for hurricane swells are expected for the Atlantic.

Additional Thoughts from Lead Forecaster Team:

MARK WILLIS (Nags Head, NC) - After Linda, I started to get a little worried about our call for above normal swell chances for the West Coast from tropical systems. The tropics kinda shut down there for a bit, and the storms that did form were not favorable for swell. But if you are any type of weather geek, like me, and Oho doesn't get you excited, I don't know what will. Oho is one of the more unique events we've ever seen and will send some rare swell directions to California.

For the East Coast, I think we're in for a decent fall and winter as southern stream systems bring enhanced windswell. It's gonna be a wet one, though.

KEVIN WALLIS (Huntington Beach, CA) - While we've seen an active season in the EPAC tropics, that hasn't translated to a lot of great swell/surf yet. Linda was a good swell but, by past strong El Niño standards, was really just a fun to even small-ish event. I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that our best tropical swell of the season for California is still ahead of us. Longer range charts paint an active picture and I would not be surprised at all to see at least decent tropical swells materialize into November.

Trailer: Todos Santos Challenge
Kevin Wallis predicts the best tropical swell of the season has yet to hit California, which could lead to increased hope for the running of the Big Wave Tour's Todos Santos Challenge in Baja California.

The other thing that has stood out to me is the heat in California, both the air and the ocean. It feels like we have been in one long heat wave for the past two months and, with such abnormally warm water temps, it has meant not as much cooling for the overnight lows as we're used to seeing (at least along the coast). I don't know if we can necessarily attribute the warmer than normal air temps to El Niño, but the exceptionally warm water temps are obviously a classic sign of the child.

We're starting to see more WNW/NW swells develop for the West Coast now and that trend should continue to slowly ramp up. Meanwhile, the southwest Pacific is in another active phase and it looks like we'll have at least a fun run for the next couple weeks. Throw in occasional action from the tropics and I think we're in for a good run of combo swell over the next six weeks. And if I can still trunk it into November I'm going to be pretty stoked!

KURT KORTE (Nags Head, NC) - We kinda got skunked on the OBX over the last few weeks when it seemed like the entire East Coast was scoring (especially Florida). However, October and November are historically great times of the year here due to fronts and any lingering tropical swells we may get before the end of the season. I think we're in for a pretty good fall and early winter as storms coming out of the El Niño-enhanced southern branch of the jet stream generate episodes of fun windswell. Plus, its our time, everyone else just scored!

MIKE WATSON (Melbourne Beach, FL) - Outside of Joaquin, the Atlantic tropical season has remained very quiet as expected, thanks to El Niño. Even after Joaquin, the Atlantic basin is 35 percent quieter than the long-term mean (as of 10/8). This is great for property owners, such as myself, that live on the barrier islands of the East Coast.

I'm not sure how much of our recent weather can be attributed directly to El Niño, but the first part of September remained very hot with temperatures in the upper 80s to low 90s in central Florida. Temperatures, for the most part, were much more pleasant the back half of the month. Then, at the end of the month, the run-of-all- swell runs began, sending us on a two-week local surf trip in our own backyard. If that is what El Niño would bring every event, well, we might hope every year was an El Niño! At the end of the day, though, we will be looking for more cold fronts to push through Florida as we progress through fall. Based on past El Niños, we will be looking out for a cooler, wetter winter here.

JONATHAN WARREN (Huntington Beach, CA) - Although California has seen a rather slow period through the back half of September into early October, I'm sticking to my guns for this fall into winter to be an above-normal season. And as we know, fall is usually already a standout season for the Golden State. Furthermore, I think we're right on the cusp, where things will start to really turn on for the West Coast over the next few weeks or so. We've already seen a decent uptick recently, along with odd but favorable storm scenarios like Oho. In addition, with all this abnormally warm water off the coast, fall fishing should also be above normal.

For Hawaii, the Southern Hemi assault has recently turned on a bit, nothing solid, but certainly fun and much better than it has been. Much of October is looking to provide more of the same, nothing solid from the South Pacific, but a fairly steady supply of fun surf across the southerly exposures. Going into November, I fear the SPAC will shut down quite a bit for the Aloha State. Other things to look for over the next month for Hawaii is more tropical systems, as well as more northerly angled swell events (as opposed to the more common NW events).

Additional Information

  • NOAA Climate Prediction Center continues to suggest a 95 percent chance that El Niño will continue through the winter, then gradually weaken into next spring.
  • We are in a strong El Niño event, and it's on par with the famous '82 and '97 events though many indices are just weaker than the '97 event.
  • Above-normal chances for additional tropical swells for the Pacific through the end of hurricane season.
  • Below-normal chances for additional tropical swells for the Atlantic through the end of hurricane season.
  • Above-normal chances for non-tropical swell for the North Pacific (esp. the West Coast, slightly lower for Hawaii) over the next two months.
  • Above-normal chances for enhanced windswell events from non-tropical systems for the Gulf Coast and Southeast U.S. over the next two months.
  • Better chances for enhanced NPAC swell and Gulf/Southeast/Caribbean swell events exist after the holidays when typical strong El Niño signals ramp up.

The Surfline forecast comes as a sign of good news for WSL Big Wave Tour organizers with the opening of the second half of the 2015/2016 season on October 15. Plus, learn exactly how a big wave greenlight decision is made with the first episode of The Call and see what the BWT Water Safety team is doing to safeguard the world's best big wave riders.