Of the many ways in which El Niño weirds the global weather (see what it is doing for skiers), none is quite so dramatic as the very large storms it creates in the Pacific, which in turn create very large waves. This year the amount of very large waves being surfed in the Pacific Ocean, especially in Hawaii, has perhaps surpassed any other.
“It’s either the most best or most relentless year of big surf on the North Shore on record,” says Matt Warsaw, referring to the fabled North Shore of Oahu, the traditional proving grounds for surfers who want to ride giant swells. Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing has made him the sport’s defacto historian and keeper of record. This winter, he has watched from his computer as surfers ride wave faces in excess of 50 feet at spots like Jaws on Maui and Mavericks in California.
Last Thursday the famous invitation-only Quiksilver surf competition in memory of Eddie Aikau was run at Waimea Bay on the North Shore. In its 33-year history the competition has only run nine times, including Thursday, because contest organizers require the size of open ocean swells to be at least 20 feet for the entire day. Most years its existence is barely mentioned. This year it almost ran twice before Thursday.
“The only other comparisons that surfers have for this year as far as cultural importance are 1969 and 1983—both El Niño years,” adds Warshaw. “But without doing a meteorological comparison, my gut says that this one is going to top them all.”
In fact, it doesn’t, not based on the pure strength of the El Niño, but it’s very close, according to Tom Di Liberto, a meteorologist at NOAA Climate Prediction Center. “We only go back to 1950 with our records of El Niños, but since we have been tracking them, the two biggest years have been 82/83 and 97/98,” he says. “We can already say that this year joins the top three in terms of strength.”
Surprisingly, it all boils down to a temperature change of a few degrees in surface water temperatures. When the trade winds lose power a mass of warm water that they usually push toward the western Pacific migrates east and sits off the coast of South America. It was South American fishermen who first noticed that the water warmed up every couple of years around christmas time and named the phenomenon “El Niño” or “Little Boy”—a reference to the birth of Jesus. Warmer water and air temps mean more thunder storms, which, in turn, energize a complex system of air currents known as the Hadley Circulation whose main effect in this case is to elongate the jet stream, a sort of superhighway for Pacific storms, and drag it southward.
“The big change we see in the north Pacific during El Niño years is that there is more of a steady stream of storms farther south than normal,” explains Di Liberto. “This is partly dictated by the jet stream which is extended farther east and south across the Pacific than usual. We tend to see storms tracking further south as a result.”
California feels the brunt of these storms, and its premier big-wave spot, Mavericks, has proven itself to by the scariest surf spot on the mainland a handful of times this winter. But it’s Hawaii, far to the south, that has been the epicenter of the action.
“Hawaii is in a sort of sweet spot on years like this (as far as rideable waves are concerned) because it is far enough from the storms that it isn’t actually being hit by them, but it still sees more large swells from the increased southerly tracking and steady supply of storms,” Di Liberto says.
But if this is the right year climactically to ride large waves, it is also the right year for surfing as a culture. After a long hiatus in the 70s, big-wave surfing, which is vaguely defined as riding waves with faces of over 25 feet, came back into vogue in Hawaii in 1983, a year that happens to coincide with one of the strongest El Niños in history.
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Since then it has passed through various iterations, most famously using personal watercraft to tow surfers into waves thought too large to catch by paddling. In recent years, a small cadre of very determined surfers led by Shane Dorian, Greg Long, Danilo Couto, Albee Layer, and others, have begun to once again paddle themselves into those same waves, eschewing mechanical power for frighteningly powerful shoulder muscles.
Aided by the use of safety crews on jet skis and buoyancy aids that function much like parachutes (with the chute replaced by bags that inflate with CO2 cartradges) these men have pushed out into a realm of surfing that, until the last ten years, was deemed suicidal even by seasoned veterans.
Yesterday at Waimea Bay as some of the world’s best big-wave surfers sat waiting for waves a set of giant swells broke all the way across the bay, “closing it out,” in surfing terminology. As the competitors dove off their boards and swam frantically to the bottom some 60 feet below, the safety personnel went back toward the beach on their Jet Skis at 30mph, only just making it to the sand in front of the 30-foot-high mountains of whitewater. In the end no one was hurt and the competition continued but the ocean seemed to have sent a very real reminder of who was in charge.
When asked what he thinks the effect of this season of big surf will be on surfing around the Pacific, Warshaw smiles. “It’s been great news for all the big-wave crazies, but a lot of surfers are going to breath a big sigh of relief when this thing finally runs its course. Bring on La Niña!”