perfect lower trestles

Nothing like perfect Lower Trestles. Which this La Niña might bring. Photo: Will Sileo

The Inertia

La Niña is nearly upon us, and for Californians like myself, that is typically less than inspiring news. It triggers memories of winter doldrums. Those steep northerly La Niña swells tend to Irish-goodbye us California surfers as they march south with little-to-no trace of their passing.

But that’s not always the case. After having a La Niña chat with Surfline’s Senior Forecast Manager, Schaler Perry, it’s not necessarily all bad news for us West Coasters. And, on the other hand, for other surfers around the world there is plenty to look forward to. During our conversation, I picked Perry’s brain about the best – and worst – places to target for a surf trip as we transition from El Niño to La Niña, as well as how this trend will bode for the World Surf League’s Final 5 at Lowers this year and Fiji next year.

Based on what you are seeing from this particular La Niña, what can we expect for surf conditions in the coming months?

It’s interesting because traditionally, La Niña is pegged as a pretty bad thing for surf in California, but it can still get pretty good. Think about two winters ago when we had a great six-week run. The best winter ever at Maverick’s was during La Niña. The thing with places like California or Hawaii is you don’t have the persistent storm activity that you get during El Niño. With El Niño, you get this steady supply of stronger storm systems. The storm track is displaced further south. So you get bigger swells, more westerly swells for California and bigger, more westerly, consistent swells for Hawaii. But sometimes you can have that storm track similar to this year, where it is too far south where Northern and Central California kind of struggled. There weren’t very many good Mavs days. Santa Cruz, obviously, had some great surf, but for a lot of other zones, you can have a little bit too much of a good thing. La Niña can lead to slower stretches, with a generally more northerly swell direction, but a lot of it really comes down to the term “interannual variability.” It’s a little bit more of a mixed bag with La Niña; we’ll probably see more favorable wind for California, but it’s also possible to see some pretty significant westerly swell as well.

Generally speaking, which areas around the world would you hone in on if you were trying to increase your probability of scoring on a surf trip during La Niña?

That’s going to depend on when the surf trip is. Right now, we’re seeing a trend away from El Niño. We still have El Niño conditions, but they’re falling apart, expected to transition to ENSO neutral over the next couple of months, with La Niña favored to develop as we move into October. Right now we’re seeing a ton of storm activity in the Indian Ocean, a very front loaded season. And we’ve seen a ton of activity in the Southwest Pacific. So there’s been pumping waves in places like Tahiti. The south shores of Hawaii have seen a ton of surf. Indo has been absolutely cranking as we move into what’s typically the peak of the Southern Hemisphere season. We’re going to see both the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific slow down, at least a little bit, and transition. Both basins have seen most of the strongest storm activity in their southwest corners, but it looks like as we move through the summer, we’re going to see those primary storm tracks shift a bit further east in both basins. That results in a more southerly swell direction for Indonesia. For the Pacific basin, that will be somewhat better for places like Central America and mainland Mexico, since storm systems are coming a little bit closer. For Southern California, we’ll see a bit more southerly swell direction. If you’re looking for something over the next few months, I’d say both the Indian Ocean and Mexico to Central America should have pretty good options.

If you’re traveling later (this summer/fall) and trying to strike somewhere, the Caribbean can be really good. But that said, you are playing with fire going anywhere in the Caribbean with how things are expected to play out in the Atlantic tropics. It doesn’t look like we’re going to have a particularly strong La Niña event. It looks like it’s probably going to be weak-to-moderate. So with a weak-to-moderate La Niña, some of the traditional signals during stronger events are more likely to be a little bit in flux. Looking at other years where we were transitioning away from strong El Niño towards a weak-to-moderate La Niña, I think a place to watch, especially in the fall, would be Southwest Europe, like Portugal. Although the storm track might be a little bit too far south, there are some options there. A place like Morocco can get pretty good, too.

When is La Niña supposed to peak?

We typically see the strength of La Niña top out between October and January. Basically your (northern hemisphere) winter months are when we see both El Niño and La Niña typically peak in strength, although there can be a little bit of a lag in what is called the atmospheric response.

I feel like La Niñas have (at least in my lifetime) tended to last longer than El Niños. Is that true?

There have definitely been multiple occasions where we’ll have El Niño conditions last for a couple of years. Usually we don’t have the persistence of strong El Niño events the way that we can see La Niña linger. There have been a couple of different instances where La Niña has lasted for what they call the “triple dip” (three years in a row). We just were coming off of a triple dip and this will be the first time that we’ve actually, at least potentially, gone from a triple dip to a strong El Niño back to La Niña. It’s also possible to have a few years in a row with El Niño or ENSO neutral conditions. But we have seen three La Niña years in a row a number of different times, while on the other hand, the most we’ve seen for El Niño conditions is two winters in a row.

There seems to be very little information on how the South Atlantic, like Brazil or South Africa, is affected by El Niño or La Niña. Is that the case?

There’s definitely less literature on it. Given that El Niño/La Niña conditions set up in the Pacific basin, it more directly impacts the North Pacific than it does some of the other basins. El Niño is a global climate driver, but some of the impacts are a little bit more difficult to correlate, or at least statistically hone in on. Looking at the storm track in the South Atlantic, especially as we move into October/November/December, there is pretty good potential that we’ll see at least some blocking – higher than normal pressure, or less storm activity than normal. Using a set of analog years (aka similar years), we saw less storm activity than normal in the South Atlantic.

Despite a Slow Indonesian Surf Season, These Photos Prove Padang Has Been On

Indo, always a good bet.  Photo: Ella Boyd

You mentioned the best bets to score good La Niña surf, but what about the areas that provide less chance of scoring good surf?

As we move into the La Niña winter, the U.S. East Coast will be a little bit slower, especially the Southeast. And the Gulf of Mexico tends to be a lot slower during the winter. That said, there’s a lot of potential for those regions to see quite a bit of surf during this tropical season. But there is also a lot more potential to see landfalling systems.

Typically, you don’t correlate La Niña with quality surf/point breaks in California, just because the swell direction tends to be a little bit more north. But again, there will likely be some windows where it’ll be good. That’s how it tends to work out. You get some runs of quality surf. Somewhere that shined during the last La Niña is Australia, which saw a lot of quality swell during that triple dip. But as far as places that really stand out as bad options, it tends to have the most (negative) impact for us in California.

You said, as the southern hemisphere winter progresses, the storm track is going to move towards the eastern basins. In theory, could we say that bodes well for the WSL’s Final 5 in September at Lowers?

It’s not a bad thing. Looking at September in our analog years, there is an area of higher than normal pressure that sets up below French Polynesia, so we see storm activity, at least for the month of September, splitting a little bit and showing what’s called a dipole signal. That means there’s a little bit of storm activity on either side of the (South Pacific) basin. It’s not to say that it will shut down the whole swell window; there’s a little bit of a signal for storm activity that’s a bit further north in the central South Pacific. Overall, it’s a mixed signal. It’ll be interesting to see what type of pattern we’re in as we move closer to that window.

Let’s talk hypotheticals: If La Niña persists into next year, does that bode well for Fiji, the location of the 2025 Final 5?

It absolutely can. Looking at where storm activity sets up, we tend to see an active storm track through the Southern Ocean into the Southwest Pacific, or potentially into the Tasman Sea. There’s certainly some potential. That’s a great time of year for Fiji to see high quality southwest swell. It just depends on how strong La Niña conditions are and if they persist. That said, I would be kind of surprised if we didn’t swing back more towards neutral (by that time in 2025). After this winter, it’ll have been five years since we were in ENSO neutral, but that’s a ways down the road.


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