What’s an ill wind for some may be a zephyr for others

NOAA scientists think El Niño’s impact on boating will vary from region to region, but they can’t be sure about that.
If expected patterns prevail, California and the West may be in for some badly needed rain.  The South also should be wetter.

If expected patterns prevail, California and the West may be in for some badly needed rain. The South also should be wetter.

The prognosis for this winter’s “Super El Niño” is that it offers a mixed bag for boating — maybe some good things, possibly some bad — but we’ll have to wait and see because the weather is fickle. It doesn’t always do what we think it will.

“Seasonal outlooks generally favor below-average temperatures and above-median precipitation across the southern tier of the United States and above-average temperatures and below-median precipitation over the northern tier,” NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center said in a Nov. 12 diagnostic.

That means cooler and rainier in the South, warmer and drier in the North, though it’s not a shoo-in because the “ultimate result will also depend on factors (chaos and other climate patterns) that are not predictable months in advance,” NOAA says.

NOAA prefers to say that a strong El Niño “tilts the odds” toward these outcomes. It expects El Niño to peak this winter and fade out in the spring or early summer.

In California, where drought has curtailed boating on some lakes and reservoirs, marinas are taking this as generally good news, says Kevin Ketchum, past president of California’s Marine Recreation Association, which represents the marinas.

After a sharp decline during the Great Recession, the warmer waters that El Niño brings off Southern California have delivered some “phenomenal fishing” as far north as Santa Barbara this summer and fall — for tuna, wahoo, dorado, marlin and swordfish, he says.

Aerial view showing extreme low water (drought) conditions at New Melones Lake on February 20, 2015.

El Niño could ease the problem of low water levels that have prevailed in the West in recent years.

And the November snowfall on Mammoth Mountain near Lake Tahoe totaled 56 inches, compared with 13 in the same month last year, which bodes well for a bigger let-off and more water for the state’s lakes, reservoirs and inland marinas, he says, although climatologists say that even a very rainy winter in California won’t end the drought.

“Hopefully it will be a win-win for everybody,” he says, “great fishing on the ocean and a ton of water in the lakes and reservoirs.”

A concern is that this is one of the three strongest El Niños since the 1950s, and the other two were brutal. In 1997-98, El Niño-related storms killed 17 people, caused mudslides, washed out highways and caused an estimated $500 million in damage, according to the National Weather Service. Storms in 1982-83 — Super El Niños hit about once every 20 years — killed 36 people and caused $1.2 million in losses.

“We are all looking forward to a very wet, historic level of rainfall,” Ketchum says, putting the best blush on that concern. “The marinas are all getting ready for that.”

He says marinas are taking care of deferred maintenance on roofs and making sure their stormwater drainage is clog-free. “We haven’t had any rain for so long,” he says.

They’re also dusting off emergency response plans and giving staff refresher training in dealing with torrential rains. “They’re looking at their physical plant side.”

El Niños are characterized by warming sea-surface temperatures in the Pacific. Temperatures in the central equatorial Pacific were averaging 3 degrees above normal in November. Along with this warming come other weather phenomena — “anomalies,” the weather service calls them — that the mariner should be aware of, says Rick Shema (weatherguy.com), a certified consulting meteorologist and weather router based in Hawaii:

  • lighter trade winds — and sometimes no wind at all, even an about-face (west to east) — in the equatorial Pacific
  • weather forecasts throughout the Pacific that can change quickly
  • more tropical cyclones and hurricanes in the eastern and central Pacific
  • stronger and more frequent storms in Southern California because of a shift in jet stream patterns
  • more frequent occurrence of thunderstorms and high winds (as much as 50 to 60 knots) in the Intertropical Convergence Zone, also known as the doldrums, in the central and eastern Pacific

Trade winds this summer in Hawaii were almost non-existent, Shema says. It was great for local boaters, who had good, calm waters to go out in, but the weather was unusually hot and humid. “The school districts purchased hundreds of air-conditioning units to keep the kids cool in school,” he says. And it was no doubt a nuisance to cruisers.

Shema says Pacific voyagers should be prepared for these changes. For cruising sailors, lighter winds mean more motorsailing, so they should carry extra fuel and use lighter-air sails, including larger headsails. They also should be ready for more severe weather — powerful thunderstorms and tropical cyclones, even out of season.

He doesn’t think the changing weather patterns in the Pacific have deterred cruisers, but he has seen more of them seeking his weather-routing services. “People are paying more attention [to the weather],” he says. “I’m happy about that.”

Less severe but still a change for boaters and marina operators is the cooler, more rainy weather forecast for the South. In Florida, where winters are typically warm and sunny, this one could be wet and cool.

“The ongoing El Niño event will contribute to a wetter and stormier dry season across South Florida, most notably an increased risk of tornadoes,” according to an Oct. 15 press release from the National Weather Service Miami-South Florida forecast office.

The weather service says El Niño winters are usually characterized by a stronger and more active southern jet stream, which can lead to occasional low-pressure systems blowing through the southern United States and Gulf of Mexico. These systems can bring increased episodes of cloudy, wet and stormy weather to Florida.

Noting that the federal Climate Prediction Center has given the state a 70 percent chance of above-normal rainfall this winter, Riverfront Marina in Fort Lauderdale warned customers that an unseasonably wet, cool winter could affect boating and require preparation.

It said that with increased precipitation and cloud cover, boaters — divers, especially — could experience poor water conditions and low underwater visibility. And although it noted that more rain will recharge aquifers and refill lakes after a period of reduced rainfall, runoff could reduce salinity inshore and adversely affect marine life and, presumably, fishing.

The marina recommends that its boaters review their storm preparedness, including monitoring the weather channel on VHF, keeping their life raft in good condition, getting semiannual boat maintenance and stowing the requisite emergency gear.

“We can’t control weather,” says Dave Geoffroy, the National Marine Manufacturers Association vice president West, based in Orange, Calif., but boaters and marina owners can be prepared for whatever El Niño throws at them this winter.

This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue.


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