Big wave peeling perfectly to the left.

El Niño | How it might affect our surf

It’s in everybody’s mouth: El Niño. The weather phenomenon occurring every two to seven years that likes to shake things up everything is making its way back into the spotlight. According to the WMO (World Meteorological Organisation), La Niña has ended after a three-year run, currently leaving the tropical Pacific in a neutral state (neither El Niño nor La Niña). This year we have a 60% chance that El Niño will start between May and July and a possibility of 80% that it starts between July and September as WMO experts updated.

Credit: Jeremy Bishop/unsplash

But what does it do exactly?

Well, think of it as Mother Nature’s version of a plot twist. It occurs when the waters of the Pacific Ocean around the equator become warmer than usual. On the coasts of Peru, the water temperature increases, resulting in fewer nutrients in the water and fewer fish for fisherpeople —which is how it was first noticed. The temperature shift is causing a domino effect that is changing atmospheric conditions and causing crazy weather patterns around the world.

So how does this affect our surf?

During an El Niño event, the Pacific Ocean becomes a bit wild. Strong winds that typically blow from east to west across the equatorial Pacific weaken, which has a profound impact on ocean currents. These weakened winds cause warmer water to slosh back towards the Americas, altering the normal patterns of ocean circulation. As a result, some surf spots can experience unusually warm water temperatures, leading to changes in wave patterns. 

Map showing the weather phenomenon El Niño.
Credit: NOAA/JPL

The effects of El Niño on surfing vary from region to region. In the Pacific Ocean, certain areas may experience a decrease in wave heights as wind patterns change and wave formation is disrupted. But the warm water can also fuel hurricanes in the central and eastern Pacific oceans. Other regions, such as parts of Central and South America, may experience larger and stronger waves. It’s as if the ocean is putting on a big show and demonstrating its unpredictability. 

La niña

El Niño also has a rebellious sibling, La Niña, who also deserves a mention. La Niña occurs when the Pacific Ocean cools down, acting as a sort of reverse El Niño. This chilly sibling can have its own effects on surf conditions, often bringing more consistent and larger waves to certain areas. So, while El Niño may temporarily disrupt the surf scene, La Niña ensures that the mood doesn’t tip. When La Niña pays Europe a visit, she tends to bring colder and stormier winters, resulting in more favourable conditions for larger and more consistent waves. But we can think about this in a year or so. 

Impact on surfing in Europe

While El Niño and La Niña mostly affect countries around the Equator such as Central and South America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and eastern and southern Africa, Europe feels it a little too. Not as much as the Pacific region, but it still leaves its mark. During an El Niño event, Europe often experiences milder winters with higher temperatures, which can translate to less intense storm systems in the North Atlantic. Consequently, this can lead to reduced wave activity along some European coastlines as the weather phenomenon hinders hurricane formation in the Atlantic Basin. The last three weeks waves were already absent in most parts of Europe leaving surfers hungry for waves. Might this be some first signs of El Niño?

Well, one thing is certain, the two weather events from mother nature disrupt our instincts of predicting waves, and spicing forecast reading up. Let’s see what this summer brings. And let’s not forget that the weather phenomena also bring flooding in some parts of the planet and drought in others. We are all in this together and let’s help with what we can. 

Further reading to nerd more into it: 

El Niño is now developing rapidly by Andrej Flis

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