Scott Stripling is a meteorologist and one of the lead forecasters for NOAA’s Tropical Analysis and Forecast Branch over at the US National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida. He’s a passionate surfer and is also the former chairman of Surfrider’s Miami Chapter. Meeting up with Scott for a night paddle around the Miami Marine Stadium, our post-session taco stop turned into a full discussion about how he got into surfing and meteorology, many of the environmental issues facing Florida’s waters, and what exactly makes the perfect wave.
Earlier during our paddle, you were telling me that you became a meteorologist due to your interest in surfing. How did that happen?
Well, I grew up on the eastern shore of Maryland in a small town of Pocomoke where my father worked for NASA at the Wallops Island Flight Facility, setting up the computer programs for space exploration. It was about a half hour away from the beach. I was there in the 70’s when skateboarding was getting pretty big and surfing was just coming on the scene.
At the time I had a few friends who surfed, but I was riding skateboards. I really wanted to give surfing a try so I bought an old junker board for about a hundred bucks. I remember always looking at all of the surf magazines. So yeah, it was about a half hour drive to the beach and there was no internet and no Surfline, so you had to listen to the NOAA radio for the marine forecast without having any idea what was causing the waves. All you could listen to was wave heights and if they were over 3-4 foot there may or may not be waves at the spots. So we would take the forecast, head to the beach, and we got skunked a lot.
That was one of the reasons in college that I decided to try metrology, just to try to know when there would be waves or not.
So how did you end up at the National Hurricane Center?
Well, after college I didn’t immediately start out in meteorology. As a matter of fact, to show you my surf roots after graduating from college, I only applied to jobs in California, Hawaii, and Australia. Those were the only resumes I sent out.
I initially did a bunch of other things. I did some surveying, got a couple contract jobs doing data processing at a NASA base and other science-related stuff. Then Weather Source, a contracting group, won the contract to do weather observations at a local airport in California and they had my resume on file and gave me a call. At the time I had a good background in the mathematics and theory behind meteorology but didn’t really have practical experience.
Shortly after that, I was hired by another group that was doing ozone experiments in Antarctica where they were measuring ozone and other chemical constituents to study the ozone breakdown process. None of the guys who worked there wanted to be away from their families for four to five months, so I volunteered to stay over the winter from July to November in 1987 on a small island just off the Antarctic peninsula – about a five-day sail from Chile – with nine other guys.
When I got back from that I applied to NOAA and was hired by the National Weather Service (NWS) office in New Orleans. And that was the start of my NWS service back in 1988.
From there you went on to a forecasting position in Puerto Rico and are now in Miami with NOAA’s Tropical Analysis and Forecast Branch over at the US National Hurricane Center?
Yeah, we have three branches within the National Hurricane Center. We have the hurricane forecasters, which I am not. We have the Tropical Analysis and Forecast division, which is basically the marine and satellite section. The third section is the technical branch full of computer guys.
What are some of the things that you look for when you go out for a surf session here in South Florida?
The main window for swell here is a cold front coming through, a low developing off Cape Hatteras, or the Carolinas that pushes the swell in from the North-North-East to North. We have a unique scenario here in Miami when a lot of the swell that we get behind cold fronts is not really generated well North of here. It’s wind waves that are being developed in the Northwest winds behind a cold front, spreading out in what we call an angular spreading of waves.
Wave energy is a force where you have physical contact with wind on the ocean surface and it pushes waves like a squeegee. That wave energy spreads out in 180 degrees, just like a pebble dropping into a pond where you see the waves ripple away. But in this case, you have the winds pushing in one direction and the wave energy is focused in a very narrow window, getting less and less wave energy as you go out toward the edges. So what we are getting in Miami is the wave energy that is being pushed away from the shoreline. A percentage of that energy spreading back into the coast and then refracting once it hits the shoreline. It’s a unique scenario that is very difficult to calculate in the forecast – especially since we don’t have any buoys!
How would you describe your perfect wave?
My perfect wave would be a point break. A ten-foot point break that’s super clean or with slightly offshore winds that are just barreling.
I’ve found a couple of breaks in the Caribbean that I really enjoyed. One of my favorite breaks used to be a secret spot in the Tortolas, although it’s not so secret anymore.
I know you’re still actively working down here as one of the Surfrider Miami chapter’s at-large members. Can you talk about some of the surf and environmental issues we’re facing here in Miami?
Plastic pollution has become prevalent on the coastlines everywhere and across the world’s oceans, so we’ve always been promoting education about reducing single-use plastics with our Rise Against Plastics (RAP) program. This is all based on educating people about the detrimental impacts of plastics on the environment and giving them advice on how to reduce plastics in their life. We’ve also been working with the city on beach trash and trash in beach neighborhoods where we have been trying to provide them with ideas and work with them on messaging and signage to influence tourists and locals to reduce their trash footprint.
Throughout the past several years, beach access and parking have become big issues in the Miami area. This has been a big issue starting in the late 90s when the city was doing construction on the bridge by the Haulover inlet. They took away the parking lot and didn’t allow for surfers to surf around the inlet. That was the first time Surfrider got involved in beach access issues here.
It’s also been very obvious for the past several years that water quality is becoming a huge issue in Southeast Florida, where there have been too many positive test results posted on the Florida Healthy Beaches website (indicating significant amounts of fecal matter in the coastal waters). We’ve finally decided to do something about it by starting some water quality testing on the beaches here with Surfrider’s Blue Water Task Force program (BWTF) and local partners in addition to creating a loose connection with the State of Florida and their healthy beaches program. We have a pretty good coalition of a number of environmental organizations here in Southeast Florida and we work really well together.