The holiday season is well underway and with it comes the gift, or lack thereof, of swell and snow. The East Coast was already gifted its first Nor'easter. Jamming offshore winds, heavy tubes, snow and cold temperatures kicked off the winter season in spectacular fashion. And the West Coast? Not so much. But is this an indication of more to come – or is it just a flash in the pan?
If you ask any of the numerous armchair-weathermen at your local surf spot or ski lodge – not that you would need to – you’ll surely get an ear-full of predictions and forecasts abound about what surprises the winter has in store for our beaches and mountains. And the term El Niño almost begins to sound like a tired euphemism and cheesy buzzword.
To clear the air and help make the most of the winter season ahead on the slopes and in the water, we spoke with leading Atmospheric Scientist, all-around outdoorsman and self-proclaimed “Cloud Hugger” Doug Stolz about the 2018/19 winter outlook released by NOAA.
In the winter of 2017/18, the U.S. experienced a weak La Niña pattern. What does this mean exactly? Great question. The trademarks of La Niña are a northern shift of the storm track and cooler-than-average ocean surface temperatures that result in more precipitation for the west coast. Throughout the winter, storms followed the more northerly track across the U.S. and left the southern sections of the country warmer and drier than average through winter.
The Pacific Northwest and Northern Plains enjoyed slightly above average snowfall, while California experienced a wetter than average winter with little in terms of swell. This meant a personal best (or worst) of going 45 straight days without surfing. Not exactly the seasonal splendor that is associated with winter in southern California.
But on the flip side, the East Coast reaped the benefits of the weak La Niña pattern and enjoyed a consistent amount of swell and snow events from storms throughout the winter of 2017/18. According to the NOAA winter outlook for 2018/19, a mild winter with warmer temperatures is predicted with an overall weak El Niño expected to influence weather patterns.
Now, that’s a lot to digest for many people. As far as gifts go, is this a new board, or is it getting clothes as a kid on Christmas?
“There is a projected trend across the southern portion of the United States for a wetter-than-average winter that is illustrated on the precipitation map,” Stolz tells ASN. “This is a classic signature of an El Niño year. Along with the extension of this precipitation north through the Carolinas and up the East Coast, the storm track is very favorable for the entire Eastern Seaboard in terms of swell and snow events.”
“These storms riding the southern border of the U.S., which result in higher-than-normal precipitation, are then energized offshore by the Gulf Stream,” he continues. “The storms gain energy, intensify quickly and then send swell from Northern Florida all the way to Maine."
The swell that greeted New Jersey and the surrounding areas in mid-November is a textbook example of the southerly El Niño storm track producing the goods. The East Coast could be looking forward to a winter full of gifts, with a favorable storm track in place a new board might just be on the cards.
A famous poet once said, “you can’t get too much winter, in the winter.” (He was definitely from the East Coast.) But can you get too little winter, in the winter? Although the El Niño trend may mean a bounty of winter storms for the East Coast, it means something much different for the West Coast. A strong El Niño year in 2010, with warmer than average ocean surface and atmospheric temperatures, led to a shortage of snow for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
“The temperature and precipitation go hand-in-hand,” Stolz tells ASN. “Typically during an El Niño year, the Pacific Northwest has lower-than-average snowfall. Case-in-point, the 2010 Winter Oympics in Vancouver. November is typically the wettest month in Seattle, and the area is currently underachieving in terms of precipitation.
“The warmer conditions combined with below-average precipitation make for less than ideal snow conditions. But this doesn’t mean a big system won’t come through, weather doesn't work like the flip of a switch.”
A strong El Niño in the winter of 2015/16 created a storm that knocked down the famed Wind n’ Sea surf shack on Christmas Eve and enough swell to run The Eddie that John Florence eventually won.
"For the West Coast, there are two semi-permanent features of the region that direct the traffic of storms for the west coast, the Aleutian Low and the Northeast Pacific High,” says Stolz. “The Northeast Pacific High is another classic feature of an El Niño pattern.”
“It sits up north by British Columbia and in the PNW and acts like a fork in the road for storms that come across from Japan,” he says. “The storms coming across the Aleutian Low can do one of two things. They can take the high road and get deflected up into Alaska and dump precipitation there. Or, hopefully, the storms undercut that high pressure sitting over British Columbia and come down through California with waves, rain and snow in the high elevations.”
With a weaker El Niño projected for the coming winter, most of these effects will be more subtle than the more pronounced winters of 2010/11 and 2015/16.
Winter is almost here. Hopefully with it comes the swell and snow that El Niño years are known for. The next time a local weather-prophet gets on their soap-box to toss their hat in the ring about the forecast, do your best to not let your eyes roll out of your head. Instead, keep a keen eye on the storm track and maybe, just maybe, the mountains and beaches, east and west coasts will have a winter to remember.
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