September 27, 2015

El Nino Update: Record Breaking Water Temps Sizzle SoCal Surfers

If you’ve surfed in California over the last month you’ve felt the unusually warm water up and down the coast. You might have even seen headlines or posts about record breaking water temps caused by this year’s strong El Nino. It’s even warmer than the East Coast, and about as warm as tropical water temps can be. But you can really get the severity of the situation when you look at the entire network of buoys as a whole.

While surfers were stoked to get to surf in bikinis and boardshorts as far north as Central California, the month of September saw record breaking water temps at 13 out of 19 buoys in the CDIP network of offshore and nearshore buoys. These buoys, scattered off the Southern California Coast from San Diego to Point Arguello, are operated by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla and offer a wealth of data to oceanographers, marine biologists, and even meteorologists.

With water temps feeling more like Costa Rica, pro surfer Lakey Peterson didn’t have to wear a wetsuit during September’s Swatch Women’s Pro in San Clemente. Photo: WSL/Kirstin.

This summer, 16 out of the 19 CDIP buoys recorded record breaking water temps, with the Scripps nearshore buoy (#201) setting an all-buoy, all-time SoCal record of 80.4 degrees Fahrenheit on September 9th. To put that into perspective, steamy Costa Rica averages 77-84 degrees Fahrenheit water temps. So if you’ve been telling your friends that it feels tropical at your nearest SoCal surf spot, you’re not very far off the mark.

Of course, you have to take into account the fact that many of these buoys have only been deployed in the last decade, and six within the last two years. On the other hand, seven buoys out of the 19 were deployed in the early 80’s and soaked up data from all the recent El Ninos, including the crazy El Nino of ’82/’83 and the massive El Nino in ’97/’98. Regardless, it’s still hot out there. There’s no way to be certain, but it might be the warmest the water has even been in SoCal, even during the pre-buoy era!

Central and Northern California weren’t spared from the warm water either this summer. Many of the nine CDIP buoys up yonder set all-time water temp records, and four out of the five buys around the Monterey Bay and San Francisco set records in July and August. The record breaking water temps were a little cooler than SoCal’s temps and ranged in the mid to upper 60’s. Again, keep in mind that all of these buoys were deployed after 2006.

Sea Surface Temperature Anomalies in the Eastern Pacific reached as much as 5 degrees Celsius above average in September. Photo:

Further to the west, Hawaii may be taking the brunt of the El Nino driven high water temps. The data speaks for itself – out of the six active CDIP buoys around the Hawaiian Islands, all have set record breaking water temps over the past few weeks in September. These buoys have been in use since the year 2000, and all of their highest water temp readings have occurred in 2015. While warm water in the tropics might not seem so unusual, the abnormally high temps this year are causing some real problems. The islands beautiful coral reefs are in a serious state of danger as warm water stresses the symbiotic relationship between coral and algae. As algae gets stressed from the hot water it leaves the coral or dies. With no food for the coral, it turns white and begins to slowly die in a process called Coral Bleaching. Of course, this will have a major impact on the local marine food chain all the way up to it’s top predator, the shark.

A research diver studies the extent of coral bleaching in Hawaii. Photo:

And it doesn’t stop there. SoCal has already seen the effect of El Nino on the marine habitat. Throughout the summer, fisherman have been catching a variety of fish more associated with tropical waters. Yellowtail, Yellow Fin, and Blue Tail Tuna have been a favorite of anglers this summer, along with an abundance of Mahi Mahi, Wahoo, Swordfish, and even Blue Marlins.

In fact, just last week Matt Santoro caught a 662lb. Blue Marlin off the coast of San Diego. This was the biggest Blue Marlin caught off of California since 1931! “We were fishing for marlin and wahoo, especially marlin, when it hit the lure,” Santora told The San Diego Union Tribune. “We had a good feeling we were going to get a marlin, and when it bit, we knew it was a marlin. We just didn’t dream it was this big.”

Matt Santora snagged the catch of his life off the San Diego coast last week. Photo: @finbomb

While it all might be fun and good dinners for the fisherman, the record breaking water temps actually disrupt the fishing industry’s usual catch of fish more associated with temperate waters. The warmer water also inhibits the growth of native seaweeds and kelp, and can cause algae blooms from non-native algae.

El Nino fueled warm water can have a disastrous effect on marine wildlife. Photo:
Kelp Forests that require cooler, nutrient-rich water to grow will have a rough time throughout the El Nino winter. Photo:

As October looms on the horizon, water temps should start going down very slowly. But you can still expect warmer than average temps all the way through our winter and into Spring. In the winter, this warmer water fuels storms that use heat energy as a fuel source. These same storms come at the West Coast at a lower, more westerly angle bringing epic surf and flooding rain events to California.

Check back for continuing coverage of this weather phenomenon with our El Nino Updates.

Buoy data presented to from weather watcher Jordan@sdwx94.

Top photo by Bryce Lowe-White.



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