Global Warming Percolates Long Range Surf Forecasts

Nathan Todd Cool, Chief Forecaster,
Dec. 2005

In 2005, residents of Nikolski were stunned to see a hummingbird visit their Aleutian Chain Island near Alaska. Inhabitants of the south Pacific island of Tegua and the Cantaret Islands off Papua New Guinea were forced to higher ground after losing a battle with rising sea levels that washed away their homes. Seals native to California were seen this past year in the far reaches of the north Pacific. New species of insect-borne parasites killed seventy reindeer in Norway this past year as well. And who’d have thought that Eskimos would need sunscreen, but as global temperatures rise, so have the occurrences of skin cancer among Canadian Inuits.

After enduring a record-breaking hurricane season in 2005, the sounds of global warming are turning the public’s ears, leaving many wondering just what in the heck is going on. Is global warming to blame for our changing environment and ocean activity? Many in the scientific and political arenas are scrambling for answers, understandably worried that a changing planet could result in storm-ravaged coastlines, droughts, floods, and other environmental impacts that would in turn affect world economies, hunger, and the safety and well-being of human life. But there’s still a question that--compared to the other effects of a seemingly warming world--may seem like a selfish whisper coming from those of us who participate with the power of the ocean: If global warming is underway, and it will influence ocean storm activity, then what effect will this have on our surf in years to come? Although this question may take a backseat to other more important issues facing our planet, it is a concern not just for pastime pleasures spent in Mother Nature’s salty seas; alterations in surf-generating storms serve as a bellwether for our entire planet.

There’s no doubt that 2005 was an interesting year across earth’s oceans. After enduring a brutal El Niño the prior year, 2005 rapidly declined into a neutral state and is now swinging the meteorological pendulum to the other extreme with a fast approaching La Niña event. This year’s transitional phase brought a near normal year for surf to Pacific regions with California, Hawaii, and Central America seeing some decent southern hemisphere-originating swells with a sprinkling of hurricane action added to the mix from storms like Fernanda, Hilary, Jova, and Otis. These, and the other tropical systems in 2005 in the eastern Pacific comprised the usual fifteen named storms for the season, and seven of these became hurricanes, which is a little below average compared to the usual nine. But while California, Hawaii, and Central American surfers enjoyed an average (or slightly below average) year for waves and weather, residents along the Atlantic coastlines saw an astonishingly stark contrast.

The Atlantic in 2005 saw a record-breaking hurricane season with an astounding twenty-six named storms--a normal season has only ten. Thirteen of these storms gained enough strength to become hurricanes--in a normal year we usually see only six. Out of the thirteen hurricanes we saw in the Atlantic this year, three of them reached the extreme, category 5 status--a normal year barely sees even two storms that reach this level of intensity. Three of the monster storms of 2005 also broke records for low pressure with Wilma clocking in at 882 millibars (mb), Rita at 897 mb, and Katrina at 902 mb. The intense and active hurricane season was costly in property damage, loss of life, and immeasurable mental anguish. Nevertheless, some of the massive hurricanes that formed in the Atlantic in 2005 made for some epic surf conditions in some locations along the U.S. eastern seaboard. But more importantly, these storms serve as indicators on how surf will be affected across our ocean planet in the coming years--not just from the hurricane perspective, but how ground swells will originate as well.

Before looking at how global climate change could impact our surf, we first need to know if we’re indeed seeing abnormal transformations in our oceans, and determine if permanent changes from global warming are the underlying cause. So for the $60,000 questions: Is global warming to blame for all of the anomalous ocean weather we’ve been seeing? And, are man-made green house gases going to alter our oceans even more in the coming years? Global warming has undeniably been a highly contentious topic, and answers to these questions will depend on whom you ask. You see, 2005 was not just a year for stormy weather across the oceans; it was also a year for turbulent discussions on cause and effect.

If climate change isn’t warming our planet, it’s sure heating up the debate on the subject. From the naysayer side of the fence, best-selling author and Harvard graduate, Michael Crichton testified in September 2005 in front of the U.S. Senate on behalf of Senator James Inhofe from Oklahoma who recently called global warming “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American People.” Crichton’s testimony was loosely based on State of Fear, his latest book that puts a fictional spin on global warming, proposing concerns are merely hype by environmentalists with hidden agendas. Crichton--an astounding novelist who stirred imaginations with DNA and dinosaurs in Jurassic Park--criticized scientific procedures conducted by global warming advocates. Yet, upon being battered with condemning remarks from Senators like California’s Barbara Boxer who said, “We are not here to talk about plays, novels, art or music,” and hearing rebuttals from Senators like Hillary Clinton who, feeling that science, and not science fiction, should be used as testimony in a Senate hearing stated “His views on climate change are at odds with the vast majority of climate scientists; it also appears in a work of fiction,” Crichton quickly backpedaled and jumped up on the proverbial fence placing a disclaimer in his Senate hearing testimony by saying, “nothing in my remarks should be taken to imply that we can ignore our environment, or that we should not take climate change seriously.”

Ironically, shortly after Crichton had finished his opening statements, many Senators had to leave the Senate hearing to attend yet another hearing on the ramifications of Hurricane Katrina. Perhaps Crichton’s testimony could have been timed better. Nevertheless, as Senators were trying to piece together the pieces of the global warming puzzle that day, Peter Saundry, executive director of the National Council for Science and the Environment, commented that he was bemused by Crichton's apparent position and said, “If you read his book, you are left with the impression that environmentalists are only one step up from the sort of people who will cross the road to murder your children, but then you get to the author’s note at the back and he makes this statement saying he is not a climate change denier. It’s hard to know what his position is.”

Crichton though isn’t the only hand-waver scoffing at global warming alarmists. The “everything is dandy” camp also has many scientists cautiously refraining from blaming this past year’s weather glitches on green house gases, feeling instead that a multi-decadal oscillation that shifts ocean water temperatures every few decades is the culprit. Of particular interest are the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), and the Atlantic Multi-decadal Oscillation (AMO). The PDO has gained a lot of attention as of late as this oscillation oftentimes intensifies the magnitude and frequencies of El Niño and La Niña events. When the PDO is in a positive cycle, there is colder water in the central and western Pacific and warmer waters in the eastern Pacific; under a negative PDO cycle, the reverse is true. The AMO represents annual ocean temperature anomalies averaged across the North Atlantic, and recent studies suggest that the AMO affects summertime precipitation and could also regulate the strength of El Niño and La Niña effects on weather year around. Such negative and positive PDO and AMO events tend to last twenty to thirty years, and scientists wary of raising the red flag on global warming feel we’re nearing a thirty-year end of one such cycle.

When thinking of long-term cycles such as the PDO and AMO, it may seem logical that our planet is merely sloshing its waters back from a previous cycle that occurred decades ago, back in a time of bellbottom jeans, leaded gasoline, CFC aerosols, disco, and of course, before the term “global warming” was coined. We may not have been paying close attention to a potentially changing planet back then, and perhaps recent advancements in technology are just now shedding light on what has been a serious yet overlooked problem for many decades. So, are the PDO-touting meteorological optimists right? Could Crichton also be correct, that many are simply plagued with Chicken Little phobia yet the sky is not really falling--or warming?

Studies conducted in 2005 may leave Crichton thinking of a sequel that reverses his conspiracy theories that make for great novella fodder in State of Fear. Of particular interest, Scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the Georgia Institute of Technology published a report in 2005 in the journal Science showing a direct link to recent hurricane intensification and increases in ocean water temperatures around the world. Although cautiously stopping short of pinning these anomalies on global warming, in an interview with National Geographic News, the study’s lead author, Peter Webster did say, “I’m prepared to make an attribution to global warming.”

Webster’s report also points the finger of guilt away from multi-decadal oscillations, pointing out that our planet is a zero-sum world; when one area of the planet sees anomalous conditions, another area sees just the opposite, and the planet is thus equaled out. The increases found in Webster’s study however, are worldwide, and not just focused on a single point on the planet. Webster’s study was also backed up by research conducted in 2005 by Kerry Emanuel at MIT. Emanuel’s paper, published in the journal Nature shows a well-calculated link between increased hurricane activity and rises in sea surface temperatures caused by--as he puts it--climate change.

Mother Nature has a Goldilocks complex and likes her ocean waters just right--not too warm, and not too cold. Deviations can be devastating, and El Niño--that anomalous sea surface temperature activity that’s made headlines in recent years--is affected by the tiniest of temperature fluctuations. Small ticks of the thermometer easily engage this seasonal weather phenomenon. One of the most intense El Niños ever recorded occurred during the winter of 1997-1998, which brought drenching rains and immense surf to Hawaii and California. Amazingly, that intense El Niño was brought on by just a tiny, 4°F deviation of sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific. The most recent El Niño that hit during the winter of 2004-2005 had a minuscule variation of not even two degrees. So when reports come in like those published in the journals Science and Nature, hurricanes are not the only storms that grab forecasters’ attention--all systems across our oceans take center stage.

El Niños have occurred more often in the past couple decades from equatorial waters shifting rapidly by a couple degrees, and La Niña events are now more frequent by similar variations. These seasonal phenomena, which can be influenced by climate change, affect not only hurricane formation, but also large ground swells in the Pacific. Alarmingly, the El Niño winter of 2004 has now rapidly swung to its antithesis: a La Niña. This not only explains why Pacific surfers saw stark contrast between the 2004 and 2005 surf seasons, but it also played a roll in 2005’s record-breaking hurricane season.

During an El Niño year, the winter in the northern hemisphere is altered by a more southerly placement of the jet stream. This drives storms across the northern Pacific at lower latitudes, allowing them to gain more strength and hit Hawaii and California with a more direct impact. During the summer, the southern jet stream in the southern hemisphere gains strength, and causes storms forming off the ice cap to move quickly to the east, and not throw as much southwest swell to Hawaii, California, and Central America.

El Niño also affects summertime surf in the Atlantic. The lower than normal jet stream in the northern hemisphere that brings strong wintertime northwest swells to Hawaii and California increases wind flow across hurricane alley, and literally blows the tops off of hurricane columns in the Atlantic. So during an El Niño year, tropical storms in the Atlantic don’t have the opportunity to gain as much strength as they normally would. But since we swung drastically from an El Niño to a La Niña from the winter of 2004/2005 to the winter of 2005/2006, the summer of 2005 entered a neutral state, and did not see hurricane-dampening winds from the jet stream. Add the fact that ocean water temps were above normal in the Atlantic, and you have the perfect formula for disaster: high-octane hurricane fuel from abnormally warm waters, and no strong upper atmosphere winds to stop cyclonic formation.

La Niña brings about the opposite effects of an El Niño. Since we’re entering a La Niña now, 2006 will likely see weaker upper atmosphere winds over hurricane alley. Water temps in the Atlantic will likely remain higher than normal--due to climate change and/or multi-decadal oscillations, and not necessarily just an El Niño or La Niña effect. With the strong possibility of this to occur, hurricane season in 2006 could potentially be far more intense than what we saw in 2005.

On the Pacific side, the La Niña means the winter of 2005/2006 should see less rain on the California coast (at least in Southern California) allowing the wintertime northern hemisphere storms to grow, but be diverted to the north, following the jet stream bent northward by high pressure positioned near the Gulf of Alaska, indicative of a La Niña. There should also be less hurricane activity in the summer of 2006 since equatorial waters in the eastern Pacific should dip below normal, which is also indicative of a La Niña cycle. Summertime southwest swell activity in the southern hemisphere aimed at California, Hawaii, and Central America should be near normal, and could even be a bit better than 2005 as the southern jet stream will likely relax more with the upcoming La Niña, and allow storms to spin off the ice cap, and traverse northward.

Bare in mind though that Mother Nature is a temperamental ole gal; we’ll never know exactly what she’s thinking. But given all the present factors, we should prepare for what could be a more vigorous hurricane season in the Atlantic in 2006 while Pacific surfers will likely see much of the same as they did in 2005: little in the way of hurricane activity with mostly southern hemi ground swell activity that will be similar to--or slightly better than--that experienced in 2005.

Looking further ahead, if global climate change is afoot and it continues to worsen, we may see the frequency of El Niños and La Niñas increase. This would shift things dramatically from one season to the next. The intensity of each season would likely be amplified due to the warming waters that are evident in the reports published this past year in the journals Science and Nature. It is important to note however, that a warming planet may get to a point where storms are affected in ways not expected. For instance, one school of thought is that a warmer world could lead to a warmer atmosphere, and this could diminish the critical difference in the temperatures between air and ocean that helps hurricanes to form. Nevertheless, data from 2005--and from many years before--point to climatic change increasing storm intensity, and not abating it. This seems like a reality we need to prepare for, or at least be cognizant of.

Only time will truly tell if climate change and recent anomalous weather across our oceans is the result of man’s hand. Many in the scientific community estimate that it could take another fifty years to detect an unambiguous trend in the intensity of hurricanes and the cause for their intensifying effects. Scientists love data, especially that gathered from over large spans of time. Data over the past few decades is still not convincing enough for many, yet to others it’s sounding alarms. Although there’s some uncertainty if global warming’s to blame for all the changes we’ve been seeing lately across our world, transformations across our ocean planet may indeed be in the works, and surf in coming years may very well be affected as a result.

--Nathan Cool

Nathan Cool is the founder of WaveCast, the Chief Forecaster for, and the author of many books including The WetSand WaveCast Guide to Surf Forecasting and most recently, Cherished Memories. More information on Nathan can be found at his web site:





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