It’s the beginning of 2023 and we are coming up to about half way through the winter. So far, the surf in Europe has been, more or less, good in some places, average in others and not so good in others. In other words, a mixed bag, but nothing to write home about.
Now, people are asking me what we can expect for the rest of the winter. Especially in those places where things haven’t really got off the ground yet, like Northern Spain, where I live. So, what are the factors that influence the surf for the coming months, how much can we say about it, and what controls how much or how little we can say about it?
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Before we do that, it’s useful to look a bit more closely at how things have panned out so far. So I had a look at the charts from about the beginning of October until now. The overall storm activity in the North Atlantic has been pretty average, with no really humping monster storms. November was pretty consistent, and there was at least one clean, long-period swell that produced some great surf in southern areas such as Spain, Portugal and Morocco.
But one thing really stood out: the storms have been tracking further south than normal. Not as far south as some other years, such as the Weird Winter of 2009-2010, but far enough to affect the surf in many places. In western Galicia and Portugal, for example, a lot of storms have been tracking too close to the coast, creating ragged, onshore conditions.
In northern Spain and southwest France, there has been some good small to medium beachbreak surf, but the bigger swells have been too west to get the big-wave reefs properly firing. In southwest UK, things have been better; those swells getting in through the Celtic Sea ‘window’, often combined with good local wind conditions as the eye of the storm tracked up the English Channel.
I wondered why the storms were tracking further south than normal. In 2009-2010, which was a really extreme case, the fact that there was a strong El Niño event probably had something to do with it. During El Niño, the storm track over the North Pacific is often pulled south, an effect that sometimes spills over into the North Atlantic.
The problem is, there isn’t an El Niño at the moment. In fact, it’s the opposite, La Niña. Which kind of suggests that the El Niño – La Niña cycle is not having any significant influence on the North Atlantic storm tracks.
The storm track over the North Atlantic is heavily controlled by what is going on above and below. Above, you have the jet stream. This pumps energy into the storms from above, helping to steer the storms as they follow the energy. This winter so far, the jet stream has been further south than normal, which helps to explain why the storm track was also further south than normal. Exactly why the jet was further south, is another matter.
Below the storms, you have the sea surface temperature patterns. These can influence the trajectory of the storms in the same way as the jet stream. Warm water pumps energy into the storms from below, and the storms are steered along bands of warm water such as the Gulf Stream. The sea temperature can also affect the initial birth of the storms.
North Atlantic sea-surface temperature anomaly for November 2022. Not the actual temperature itself, rather the difference in temperature compared with the average November temperature from 1991 to 2020. You can see that they were higher than normal over a large band of ocean just south of the Azores. The northern boundary of this band of warmer-than-usual water was where a lot of the low pressures formed.
The boundary between warmer and cooler water transmits pressure instabilities into the lower atmosphere, which can trigger off a storm. This winter, there has been a band of anomalously warm water across the south of the North Atlantic (see diagram). This might have had something to do with the storms tracking further south than usual.
Now, it’s great to be able to analyse what happened before, and find reasons for why it happened. But to try to predict what is going to happen next is a different ball game, especially if we are talking about long-term.
Forecasting is always a juggle between precision, accuracy and lead time. Precision is how specific or vague the statement you are trying to make about the future is; for example “The sea will contain water” is not the same as “The swell will peak at four feet at two o’ clock and there will be four-wave sets every ten minutes”.
Accuracy is the chances of that statement coming true at a certain point in the future. And lead time is how far in the future that point is. Really vague statements and short lead-times have the greatest chance of being accurate. And long-term forecasts, like the one we are trying to make here, can’t be very precise if you want them to have the slightest chance of them being accurate.
So, what are the factors that might influence the surf in the coming months?
El Niño – La Niña:
I’ve already said that this hasn’t been having any influence in the North Atlantic this winter so far. But if it changes radically in the next month or so, it might. Well, according to the experts at NOAA, it is going to stay in La Niña for pretty much most of the rest winter. So we can probably discard that as a major influencing factor.
If the water temperature across that band of ocean south of the Azores stays above normal, the storms might continue to track further south than normal, and the second half of the winter could be similar to the first.
If the jet stream moves north and becomes really strong and remains meanderless, it might pull the storm track north, its influence outweighing that of the water temperature. That would mean big, long-period northwest swells, pumping surf at the Spanish reefs and gigantic A-frames at Nazaré. On the other hand, if a giant meander develops in the jet stream, we might end up with small, slopping surf everywhere for up to two or three weeks.
In summary, really all we can do is keep an eye on the long-term charts (MSW has up to 16 days), and, at the same time, try to be as unspecific as possible. We should concentrate on looking for general overall patterns, like the trajectory, strength and shape of the jet stream, rather than really specific details like the size and swell direction at any given spot. And, of course, always be prepared for that big swell just in case it appears out of the blue.
Keep an eye on the cams: Nazare | Supertubos | Anchor Point | Mundaka | Fistral | Croyde
Cover image by Tom Vaughan.