Where did Fall go and who Broke the North Pacific?

Adam Wright
(Saturday) 11.16.13

November certainly hasn’t started off with a bang…over the last couple of weeks we have had to push through a mix of small combo swells and funky morning high tides, which has kept Southern California’s surf relatively weak and soft…especially if you happened to live closer to beaches with less exposure to the incoming swells.

The North Pacific hasn’t helped to alleviate the frustration that a lot of us have been feeling…instead it has been teasing us by throwing up some large red/purple blobs on the swell models but then pushing them in seemingly unnatural directions. I don’t know about most of you but I am starting to feel like a dog chasing a laser-pointer…the damn thing is right there but I just can’t quite catch the stupid thing.

A few of you have asked about the current weather pattern in the Solspot comments section…so I thought it would be easier to put together a little breakdown of what we just went through and give some insight on how things are shaping up for the true start of winter.

Here is a good question to start with…

Alex Asked: So just as we had possibly the worst August for surf, we’re now looking at one of the weakest November’s for surf as well? What happened? I thought this was supposed to be the month to get excited about surfing again?

Alex you actually connected a few big but very spread out dots with that question. Yes you are right we have seen sub-par swell/storm activity for most of this Fall…and we started seeing the gradual shift occur in August, which unfortunately cascaded further into the rest of the season. Granted the surf hasn’t been total flatness the last couple of months…we have had some good, and even very good bursts of swell, particularly through parts of September and October. Unfortunately those didn’t string together in any sort of significant way so we ended up spazzing out when the surf did show and then sitting around for a week or two once it faded out.

So what are the biggest missing pieces to the Fall puzzle…

lack of support from the North Pacific

Very few storms formed inside our swell window…sticking most over the International Dateline in the Western North Pacific or straddling the higher latitudes on their way into Alaska and Canada, which left them either too far away or moving the wrong direction to push significant swell our way.

For the NPAC the biggest issue was the location and strength of the semi-permanent ridges of high-pressure. These high-pressures are sort of a double-edged sword…we need them to stick around the region since they will set up the good weather and Santa Ana winds that can make Fall a magical season. However if they get out of control, which happens when they don’t have at least some NPAC storm activity chipping away at them, then they can dominate the storm track, shutting it down completely.

One of the things that stood out for me this fall was the presence of a strong high over the Bering Sea that would occasionally slip down over the Aleutians and significantly stunt the flow of storms that generally track out of the West Pacific heading our way. There were even times in the last couple of weeks where it linked up with the lower mid-latitude ridge and formed a super-high pressure with a nearly 1048-1050mb core along the ocean surface, which is like building a steel reinforced mountain of air across the important parts of our swell window.

In fact the storm that just blasted Hawaii with N swell was a by-product of the current strength of the high-pressure ridges. They were so strong they were able to encapsulate a storm and actually reroute it southward toward the Islands rather than let it follow the more natural path of tracking eastward like a storm in those latitude usually does.

East Pacific Tropics

The other missing piece to the less than stellar Fall season was the weak East Pacific Tropics.

While we had a few storms cruising through the EPAC most of them either headed out to Hawaii or stayed in the shadow of Baja…hitting cold water and weakening when they made a move toward our swell window. August-September-October is generally when tropical storms start to drift out of the tropical region and recurve back toward our region…but this year they either recurved to early and ended up impacting land…or they never made the turn and headed out to the west and out of swell making range.

The season was pretty sparse in terms of the number of storms…sure we had 17 named systems but starting in August we only had 3 that actually reached Hurricane strength…and only two of those tracked far enough west to even get in our swell window.

Fall needs combo swell

Was this the worst Fall of all time? Nope, not by a long shot. I know it is hard to keep in perspective when you are riding yet another small musher for what seems like the last month (but has probably only been a week). Having access to an insane amount of surf photos and footage from all over the world only seems to make it worse…because you see how good it is somewhere else…and it is always good somewhere out there.

Don’t get be wrong this Fall wasn’t perfect…most of our swells were small and you probably found yourself riding your small wave gear more than you would have liked this time of year. However we did get a few overhead days with great conditions…along with plenty of rideable days with good weather, which if you look back through the years is pretty typical for the Fall season. The average/below-average Fall seasons aren’t the ones we remember…only the insanely good ones.

Looking back at this Fall you can see that getting good waves during the Aug-Sept-Oct (and early November), is more of a group effort than any other time of the year. We need to have active storms in the North Pacific, the EPAC Tropics, along with the South Pacific. In fact we need even more out of the NPAC and EPAC to make up for the weakening/zonal shift that the SPAC starts to make as it transitions out of its ‘winter’ season.

Winter Outlook

November, while technically is part of Fall, is when we transition seasons into the winter. Over the last few years we have had some pretty decent NPAC storms forming up already…but remember that we have also been riding the edge of El Nino (either being slightly in an El Nino phase or just coming out of one). It has only been over the last 12-18 months that we have sat in what they call the ENSO-Neutral state, which is NOAA’s term for ‘average’.

I am not sure if you guys have felt it…but for the last several years the seasons have seemed a little out of whack. The Fall would be wet, or struggling through eddy conditions, while early season NPAC storms sprung up near the coast and peppered us with bad weather. The winter months would feel more like Fall was supposed too with nice weather and more offshore days…(but without the SPAC or tropical swell activity)…and we wouldn’t see big WNW-NW swells until we had almost moved into Springtime. This is the first time in a while that it seems like things have settled back into their ‘normal’ positions.

So while we haven’t quite got winter rolling yet there is some good news on the horizon. Check out one of the new long-range forecast pressure charts. It shows the NE Pacific High settling back over the West Coast (where it normally sits during winter) and a low-pressure starting to chew its way through the mid-latitudes. It isn’t a strong storm (yet) but it does show a big shift in the overall weather pattern we have been experience. I don’t think we should write this winter off yet…if things end up following the more ‘normal’ seasonal shifts we will see the NPAC pick up over the next couple of weeks with some new swell heading our way for the end of the month and on into December.

  • cononsense

    On the other hand… diving forecast next two weeks for socal: good-epic!

  • robin

    Thanks for breaking it down so clearly, Adam. Yea, despite the lack of recent swell, the ENSO neutral conditions do make for a more promising winter. Cheers!

  • stop

    atleast we’ll get some fun-size SW pulses for the end of the month.

  • Ryan

    This fall has been pretty marginal, but when those santa ana’s combined with that overhead swell that marched into the socal beaches finally started comin’ through, it was the best I’d seen in a while. It’s awesome to see offshores this early in the season (like they’re supposed to) because I do see what you mean, they seem to be out of whack and it seemed in previous years that fall would come in January or February. Still waiting for a swell combo/conditions like that of October ’07!

  • Mitch

    Adam, thank you for all your hard work. All of us parking lot grumblers really appreciate all the effort you put into these forecasts despite the lack of waves. I think diver guy has the right idea!!!!

  • mg

    42 years of surfing under my belt. Last 3 years have been the worst on my record.
    This year is even worse. In the 70′s we defined swell by double overhead. Head high wasn’t even surfed by our reef crew. Now the hype calls a chest high swill, a moderate swell.
    No one is to blame, but you can put lipstick on the pig and it is still a pig. Declining swell overall has been the norm over the last 4 decades. You can have your head high epic days. Pure and simple. A joke of Year. Fortunately if you are into multisports than who cares about the surf hype…Now if one wants to surf instead of sitting in an overcrowded lineup, one must travel far or surf crap. Surfing has morphed into a joke sport in Cali, mostly populated by wannabies.