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El Nino forecast stirs up recollections of the crazy 1997-98 phenomenon

August 10, 2009 |  8:48 am

A bodyboarder tries to avoid getting chewed up by El Niño-driven surf at Seal Beach Pier in 1997.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center last week issued a report stating: "While there is disagreement on the eventual strength of El Niño, nearly all of the dynamical models predict a moderate-to-strong El Niño during the Northern Hemisphere Winter 2009-10."

If the models are accurate, we're in for some crazy times -- some good, some bad -- along the West Coast.

The last powerful El Niño event was 1997-98. Some might recall the flooding associated with abundant rainfall, but surfers, skiers, snowboarders, fishermen and marine mammal enthusiasts might remember the massive swells, extreme snowfall, visits by exotic species and a devastating impact on seals and sea lions.

Here are a few random snapshots from that episode:

 -- Carlsbad's Taylor Knox wins the K2 Big Wave Challenge, an event created in anticipation of the El Niño-generated surf. El Niño does not disappoint. Big-wave surfers spend the winter chasing waves from Hawaii to Mexico and California. The wave Knox conquered, at Todos Santos Island off Ensenada, had a face measuring 52 feet. He wins $50,000.

-- It's February, 1998, and a little girl wanders glumly into a Southern California resort after some time on the slopes and complains, "I keep falling and I can't get up because the powder is too deep and my arms are too short." The local resorts are not complaining. Mountain High in Wrightwood, for example, will receive 310 inches of snow in 1997-98. (For the sake of comparison, last winter the resort received only 130 inches.)

Bob DeLong, a research biologist for NOAA, checks on a 6-month-old sea lion on San Miguel Island. Pups were especially vulnerable during the 1997-98 El Niño.

-- Cabo San Lucas' summertime water temps are in the low 90s, well above normal, driving the fish and their prey far to the north. Dorado and yellowfin tuna are being caught off Southern California, as far north as Ventura. A marlin is caught close to Canada and a sailfish reportedly is caught off Northern California. Few can believe the reports because they seem so bizarre.

Cabo also gets hammered by two hurricanes, spawned in even hotter water to the south. Boxer Oscar De La Hoya is interviewed in Cabo as Hurricane Nora advances. "I've faced tougher opponents," he says. "I have a pretty good wine cellar, so I'll just stay inside."

-- Unusually warm water has displaced baitfish populations important to seals and sea lions, and a major die-off occurs at their island rookeries. Making matters worse, persistent winter storms and unceasing high surf drives many of the mammals ashore on Southern California beaches, weak and malnourished.

Well-meaning people do these animals more harm than good by urging them back into the ocean or throwing water on them. Care facilities become inundated. An operations manager at the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro bemoans, "We're treating El Niño as a war, taking only the debilitated animals first." 

Perhaps it's nature's way of keeping populations in check, but it's not a pretty picture.

-- Pete Thomas

Top photo: A bodyboarder tries to avoid getting chewed up by El Niño-driven surf at Seal Beach Pier in 1997. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times.

Bottom photo: Bob DeLong, a research biologist for NOAA, checks on a 6-month-old sea lion on San Miguel Island. Pups were especially vulnerable during the 1997-98 El Niño. Credit: Bryan Chan

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