Swell Classification Guidelines
Significant: Winter - Swell 8 ft @ 14 secs or greater (11+ ft faces) for 8+ hours (greater than double overhead).
Summer - Head high or better.
Advanced: Winter - Swell and period combination capable of generating faces 1.5 times overhead to double overhead (7-10 ft)
Summer - Chest to head high.
Intermediate/Utility Class: Winter - Swell and period combination generating faces at head high to 1.5 times overhead (4-7 ft).
Summer - Waist to chest high.
Impulse/Windswell: Winter - Swell and period combination generating faces up to head high (1-4 ft) or anything with a period less than 11 secs.
Summer - up to waist high swell. Also called 'Background' swell.
On Wednesday (1/23) North and Central CA had swell from the first dateline storm producing waves to 11 ft and clean late in the day. Down south in Santa Cruz waves were head high and kinda wonky with southeast winds in effect. Southern California up north was waist to chest high and clean but inconsistent. Down south waves were waist to maybe chest high and clean, but soft. Hawaii's North Shore was getting the last of swell from the 1st dateline storm with waves head high early and clean. The South Shore was flat. The East Shore was getting local windswell with waves waist to maybe chest high and chopped.
See QuikCASTs for the 5 day surf overview or read below for the detailed view.
Swell from a storm on the dateline Sunday (1/20) with seas to 43 ft has already hit North CA and is moving into Southern CA. The next storm developed on the dateline Tuesday (1/22) with seas to 43 ft aimed more east-northeast. And a third smaller one is forecast west of the dateline Thursday (1/24) with seas 34 ft. All these systems are to be small and short-lived with swell resulting of a similar character. A bit of a pause after that as a broad and ill-formed gale tracks east from off Japan Sun-Wed (1/30) offering only meager swell production opportunity.
SHORT- TERM FORECAST
Current marine weather and wave analysis plus forecast conditions for the next 72 hours
Jetstream - On Wednesday (1/23) the jetstream was tracking flat east off Japan in a single flow with winds at 175 kts over Japan and less as it reached to the dateline, then almost splitting just west of the dateline with a weak trough there but not quite fully splitting. It finally split north of Hawaii, but just barely, with the northern branch ridging some and pushing into Oregon while the southern branch pushing east into Northern Baja. There was some limited support for gale development in the trough approaching the dateline. Over the next 72 hours winds off Japan to build to 190 kts with a new steep trough builds on the dateline and the split point developing just east of there. Very limited support for gale development in that trough maybe Sunday (1/27). Beyond 72 hours the pocket of 190 kt winds to push east to the dateline by Wed (1/30) with a bit of a broad trough forming behind it offering some support for gale development. But the split in the jet is to become quite pronounced east of there with the northern branch tracking up into the Bering Sea and the southern branch tracking southeast over Hawaii supporting only high pressure east of there.
Surface Analysis - On Wednesday (1/23) swell from the first dateline storm was pushing into California (see First Small Dateline Storm below). A second gale was tracking from the dateline into the Gulf of Alaska (see Second Small Dateline Storm below). And a third small storm was developing just west of the dateline expected to hold into Thurs (1/24) (see Third Small Dateline Storm below). Over the next 72 hours no other swell producing weather systems are forecast.
First Small Dateline Storm
A small gale started to develop on the dateline Saturday AM (1/19) with pressure 972 mbs producing 2 small fetch areas of 45 kt west winds in close proximity to each other. By the evening it had coalesced into a single fetch with winds 50 kts from the west at 41N 175W with seas building to 42 ft over a small area at 42N 177W. All fetch was aimed to the east. (294 degs NCal/326 degs HI). By Sunday AM (1/20) a small area of 45-50 kt west winds were holding at 42N 168W with seas building to 43 ft at 42N 169W (290 degs NCal/338+ degs HI). Most energy heading due east. Fetch faded quickly in the evening with winds down to 35 kts tracking flat east with seas 35 ft at 41N 162W (289 degs NCal/bypassing HI to the east).
A nice little pulse of 16-17 sec period swell for a short duration is expected for the US West Coast with some limited sideband swell for the Islands too.
Northern CA: Swell arrived on Wed (1/23). 15 sec residuals on Thursdays (1/24) at 7.0 ft @ 15 secs (10.5 ft). Swell Direction: 289-294 degrees
Second Small Dateline Storm
On Monday PM (1/21) another small storm developed on the dateline with a tiny area of 55 kt northwest winds in it's south quadrant down at 38N 176E. Seas built to 32 ft over an infinitesimal area at 37N 175E. By Tuesday AM (1/22) 55 kt west winds held in it's southern quadrant pushing northeast with 44 ft seas at 41N 177W over a tiny area tracking east-northeast (325 degs HI/292 degs NCal). By evening the storm was fading with residual 40-45 kt west winds tracking west and seas fading from 41 ft at 43N 171W (336 degs HI/294 degs NCal). Wind rebuilt to 45 kts from the west Wed AM (1/23) with seas 35 ft at 43N 168W (346 degs HI/293 degs NCal). In the evening fetch is to be fading from 35-40 kts with seas holding at 32 ft at 43N 163W (bypassing Hawaii/294 degs NCal). The gale is to be nearly gone Thursday AM (1/24) with winds dropping from 35 kts and seas fading fast from 29 ft at 43N 156W (296 degs NCal).
Hawaii: Swell is to build through the day Thursday (1/24) with period dropping from 18 secs peaking near sunset with pure swell 5.7 ft @ 15 secs (8.5 ft). Swell fading overnight. Residuals on Friday AM (1/25) fading from 6.0 ft @ 13-14 secs (8 ft). Swell Direction: 315-325 degrees
Northern CA: Expect swell arrival Friday (1/25) near 1 PM with period 20 secs and size tiny. Size building overnight. Swell to peak on Saturday (1/26) near noon at 7.0 ft @ 16-17 secs (11.5 ft). Swell fading Sunday from 7 ft @ 14-15 secs (10 ft). Swell Direction: 292-294 degrees
Third Small Dateline Storm
On Wednesday evening (1/23) yet a third small storm is forecast building just west of the dateline with a small area of 55 kt northwest winds developing aimed reasonably well at Hawaii. 34 ft seas forecast at 40N 167E. On Thursday AM (1/24) this system to lift rapidly northeast with winds fading from 50 kts. Seas fading from 34 ft at 43N 175E. A tiny area of 45 kt west winds to hold in the evening with seas fading at 32 ft at 46N 174E. This gale is to be fading out Friday AM (1/25) with winds dropping from 40 kts and seas fading from 32 ft at 50N 178E and starting to impact the Aleutian Islands. If this materializes small swell could result for the Islands and the US West Coast. But it is to be a long ways from the mainland and aimed well northeast of the Islands. Expect small size at best.
North Pacific Animations: Jetstream - Surface Pressure/Wind - Sea Height - Surf Height
No tropical systems of interest are occurring.
California Nearshore Forecast
On Wednesday (1/23) weak low pressure was just off the Central CA coast with high pressure at 1022 mbs migrating from Hawaii towards the US West Coast. Light south winds were the norm for North and Central CA through the day. Light northeasterly winds forecast north of Pt Conception Thursday and early Friday but giving way to moderate northwest winds 15 kts by Saturday late AM as a new reinforcing high pressure system moves into the North and Central coast and even encroaching into Southern CA late Sunday likely starting to chop things up. The high pressure and north winds regime is to become more entrenched Monday extending well into Southern CA with northwest winds 20 kts everywhere and even to 25 kts Tuesday. Finally Wednesday the high is to start pushing inland over the Pacific Northwest with a light offshore flow starting to take hold for all of California.
Surface - No swell producing weather systems were occurring. Over the next 72 hours no change is forecast.
South Pacific Animations: Jetstream - Surface Pressure/Wind - Sea Height - Surf Height
Marine weather and forecast conditions 3-10 days into the future
Beyond 72 hours high pressure is to build some off the US West Coast setting up modest northerly winds for the weekend and stronger by early in the workweek (1/28). A broad but ill-defined gale is forecast developing off Japan on Friday (1/25) easing east over the weekend with winds to 40 kts. 27 ft seas forecast Saturday PM (1/26) at 37N 153E tracking east pushing 28 ft Sunday AM at 37N 160E. additional 40 kt west fetch expected Sunday AM (1/27) resulting in 30 ft seas at 40N 159E building in the evening to 34 ft at 42N 164E. Residual energy to ease east from there but all fetch to be below 40 kts with seas in the 24-28 ft range hitting the dateline at 37N 180W Tues PM (1/29). Limited small 16 sec period swell possible for the Islands, and even less for the mainland.
Note: The Madden Julian Oscillation is a periodic weather cycle that tracks east along the equator circumnavigating the globe. It is characterized in it's Inactive Phase by enhanced trade winds and dry weather over the part of the equatorial Pacific it is in control of, and in it's Active Phase by slack if not an outright reversal of trade winds and enhanced precipitation. The oscillation occurs in roughly 20-30 day cycles (Inactive for 20-30 days, then Active for 20-30 days) over any single location on the planet. During the Active Phase in the Pacific the MJO tends to support the formation of stronger and longer lasting gales resulting in enhanced potential for the formation of swell producing storms. During the Inactive Phase the jet stream tends to split resulting in high pressure and less potential for swell producing storm development. The paragraphs below analyze the state of the MJO in the Pacific and provide forecasts for MJO activity (which directly relate to the potential for swell production).
As of Wednesday (1/23) the daily Southern Oscillation Index (SOI) was down to -0.98. The 30 day average was down to 1.44 with the 90 day average down slightly at -0.96. This is neutral territory and not indicative of El Nino.
Current equatorial wind analysis indicated light westerly anomalies over the Maritime Continent (WPac) building slightly over the dateline extending to a point south of Hawaii. Neutral anomalies continuing the rest of the way to Central America. This suggest the Active Phase of the MJO was in control of the West Pacific. A week from now (1/31) neutral anomalies are forecast over the Maritime Continent to a point south of Hawaii, with with light east anomalies off Central America. This suggests the Active Phase of the MJO is to be fading some and making no easterly progress. It even looks like a small area of east anomalies might start building in the extreme West Maritime continent.
The longer range models (dynamic and statistical) run on 1/22 suggest a solid version of the Active Phase of the MJO was in control over the dateline working its way back over the Maritime Continent and extending east to a point south of Hawaii with a strong Inactive Phase building in the Indian Ocean. Both models remain in close correlation indicating the Active Phase is to hold on the dateline for the next 15 days, fully in control. Theoretically this should support the formation of stronger and longer lasting storms and is very similar to the pattern that developed last year at this time. The storm cycle has begun, delineated by the formation of Storm #1 in the Northwest Pacific with 3 smaller system behind it. At the same time a strong Inactive Phase is forecast building in the Indian Ocean. The dynamic model actually has it stalled there for the next 15 days while the more conservative statistical model has it edging into the West Pacific about 10 days out. Let's hope the dynamic model is right. Regardless, whatever benefit we get from the Active Phase, we will pay for with the trailing Inactive Phase.
Given the demise of what was almost an El Nino pattern earlier in the year, we believed a return to a normal MJO cycle would occur with the Inactive and Active Phases becoming more pronounced and regular. But the pattern collapsed/stalled in November and December. But as of now (1/15) it appears the MJO has made a legitimate return with the Active Phase now in control and the Inactive Phase building in the Indian Ocean. So we appear to be back in a more 'normal' pattern.
The more warm water in the equatorial East Pacific means more storm production in the North Pacific during winter months (roughly speaking). As of now (1/21) a pocket of 2 degree above normal waters is building under the dateline but a pocket of -2 deg C cooler than normal water is blocking it's eastward progress south of Southern CA on the equator and 150 meters at depth. At the surface a near normal/neutral temperature profile covers the entire equatorial Pacific. No help here.
The Fall season started with what initially appeared to be a strengthening MJO pattern (both Active and Inactive Phases) suggested a return to a neutral ENSO pattern. But that collapsed in Nov-Dec 2012. And now the models appear to suggests a return of a normal MJO cycle for January 2013. Projections from the CFSv2 model are not supporting any form of El Nino development but almost a return to La Nina with -0.4 deg C water temps by late January into April, then slowly returning to normal if not slightly warmer by July 2013. But virtually all the other ENSO models predict a slow decline from El Nino threshold temps into Spring 2013, but never dipping into negative territory. Regardless, the warm spurt in July 2012 was just a false start. 2012-2013 is a neutral year.
We are in a dead neutral ENSO pattern with neither El Nino or La Nina imminent. But that is a far better place than the previous 2 years under the direct influence of La Nina. Based on current data the outcome for this Winter is not looking good or bad, just normal. We had expected a normal number of storms and swell, but the total lack of any real activity so far had us thinking of downgrading that projection. With the projected return of the MJO, a barn buster Jan and Feb are required to make up the short fall. Will monitor but it looks doubtful. Longer term the expectation is this winter will be followed by at least one year of slightly warmer temps (2013-2014) ultimately converging in a stronger warmer pattern and possible El Nino 2-3 years out (2014 or 2015). And historically, this is the 'normal' pattern (a few years of false starts post La Nina before a legit El Nino forms).
See imagery in the ENSO Powertool and more details in the El Nino Update Finally updated 10/6/12
Beyond 72 hours no swell producing fetch is forecast.
Details to follow...
External Reference Material: El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO), Madden Julian Oscillation (MJO), Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), Southern Oscillation Index (SOI), Kelvin Wave
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Chasing the Swell has been nominated for a Webby Award. See details of this great piece of video journalism below. Some say this is the "Oscars" of online awards.One of the awards is voter based. If you have a moment, please cast your ballot by going to: http://webby.aol.com, register, then click on the "Get Voting" tab and then to the "Online Film and Video" > "Sports" category and vote for "Chasing the Swell".
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Chasing The Swell: Sachi Cunningham from the LA Times spent the entirety of last winter chasing surfers and swells around the North Pacific with her high def video cam. Her timing couldn't have been any better with the project exactly coinciding with the strongest El Nino in 12 years resulting in the best big wave season in a decade. And being an accomplished surfer herself helped her to bring a poignant and accurate account of the what it's like to ride big waves and the new (and some not so new) personalities that are revitalizing the sport. This is must-see material for any surfer or weather enthusiast. Check it out here: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/chasingtheswell/
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Surf Height-Swell Height Correlation Table