El NINO 2010 – The Best Swell Season in a Generation!

El Nino 2010 – The Year of Consistency

By: Ryan Richardson

As our winter fades into another beautiful spring, the thought of our El Nino season coming to a close is something most surfers don’t want to think about. And indeed, this year’s El Nino weather event provided a very consistent series of west and north-west swells that slammed our coast.  While most winter surf seasons in Santa Barbara can be fickle and inconsistent, this year local surfers had a blissful dilemma of deciding which right point to surf along the American Riviera.

Just as predicted, warmer water temperatures in the eastern equatorial region of the Pacific added more energy to our winter storms and pulled them down a little lower in latitude. This made most of our winter swells approach at a more westerly angle, ideal for our coast full of right pointbreaks inside the sheltered Santa Barbara Channel. Although none of the swells we received were gigantic in size, the unbelievable consistency was unusual even by El Nino standards. As one swell blurred into the next, every surf spot in our region enjoyed many memorable days of surf. Hundreds of photos and videos of epic sessions were posted to websites, and everyone can now recall at least one “all-time” day at their favorite surf spot along the coast. Every spot seemed to have “a perfect sandbar”, and breaks that often lie dormant were surfed on a regular basis.

With the perfect angle and increased consistency, one would think that crowds would be at a minimum, or at least spread out a bit. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Many of the seasons best swells arrived on sunny weekends, and our ever-growing surfing population was quick to snag everything that was breaking.  But with two solid swells a week for six months, there was still plenty to go around, and I don’t think you will hear anyone complaining.

At the same time, this extra energy that gave us consistent swell also added moisture to the Pacific storm systems and our rainfall totals were far above average. In fact, with Santa Barbara receiving 18.37 inches and Goleta receiving 18.6 inches so far, our rainfall amounts are 128% above normal for the season. Luckily, the county was prepared for the increased precipitation and flood damage was at a minimum. Even the burn areas along the foothills were spared from any real flood damage as the autumn’s aerial seeding program kept the areas intact. This was a real concern for authorities and homeowners heading into the El Nino season as burn areas lack the vegetation needed to prevent erosion.

The only real danger this winter from El Nino was the high bacteria counts in our coastal waters from all of the rural and urban runoff. And while it did rain in a consistent manner (almost twice a week throughout December and January); this El Nino event was considered mild by all accounts. In between storms, a solid ridge of high pressure would form and allow light winds and sunny skies to grace our coastline, giving way to some extended periods of above average temperatures. Meanwhile, the East Coast also felt the effects of El Nino and suffered one of their coldest and snowiest winters on record. Likewise, regions such as the Pacific Northwest were actually dryer than normal as storm tracks that usually hit the west coast near Washington slid down to Southern California instead.

So what’s in store for spring and summer you ask? Will El Nino continue to affect our weather and surf throughout the year? Yes! As spring begins, our typical vernal breezes will be stronger this year, and precipitation will be above average as well. Usually, spring winds cause strong upwelling along our coast. This process pushes surface water down the coast and allows colder water from below to rise to the surface to take its place. Expect water temps to drop by as much as five degrees in well exposed areas this spring as north-west winds persist throughout the season. Additionally, we should expect a few more rain events than what we would normally see during a non-El Nino spring. As spring gives way to summer, we will see our typical weather and surf patterns come back in to play, June-gloom with overcast conditions and a perpetually flat sea. As always, south and south-west swells that start to kick up in the South Pacific in late April and continue through October will be blocked by the Channel Islands. This year however, we might see a decline in south and south-west swells as the El Nino event changes atmospheric conditions worldwide. As our winter storms are enhanced by the weather phenomenon, the Southern Hemisphere’s winter storms will be less intense. This means that our summer surf spots to the north and south that are out of island shadowing would be less consistent this summer. Let’s hope it doesn’t pan out that way. Farther out into the future, we can expect a few years of dryer winters and even drought-like conditions as our El Nino subsides and the cycle begins again.

Unidentified drawing clean lines at Rincon during this winter's endless stream of El Nino fueled swells.

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