How the weather affects the surf

Weather and surf go hand in hand like peanut butter and chocolate here in Florida. If it wasn’t for weather, we would not have surf. Do to this, we must understand how it affects us and our interaction with the surf. We get surf from wind. The stronger the winds directly onshore or out in the ocean from tropical systems, the bigger and stronger the surf is. We have seasons of the year, spring, summer, fall, and winter. These parts of the year have different types of weather, therefore, having different affects on the surf conditions. Weather and surf are big components or Florida all year long.

Spring season and weather. March is generally the start of spring here in Florida. Cold fronts are starting to lose their intensity and ability to drop the weather temps outside. As the fronts start to loose their punch, we have times when SE winds prevail on the Fla. Space Coast. Theses winds are a direct cause to stalled out fronts that wash out or return north as warm fronts to the cheers of many northerners who have been frozen out by winters grip. The winds make the surf choppy and start increasing the local water temps to a closer to summer like time. Strong SE winds here make the waves closer together. The winds also make the waves shorter an more broken up. The longer the winds blow from this direction, the higher the height of the surf will be from Cocoa Beach to the Inlet. For new surfers this can be a handful due to lack of paddling experience.With the SE winds we also see more Man-O-War’s floating in with the wind and water currents. Our coast here also has periods where a sea breeze pattern develops each day just like what we have in summer (how we have sea-breezes is covered in the summer section). The sea-breeze will start like clockwork, and ruin decent surf before 12pm.

We can also have the jet stream (the major steering current for weather) move low pressures into our surf window, and we can get decent ground swells generated. Ground swells are know for longer lines, longer rides, and better surf. If things go the way we hope for here, we want long lines, and offshore winds. Depending on the national weather, we can sometimes have our cake and eat it too..The low pressure pulls energy to it and then dispenses up and out ward. The low has a counter-clockwise spin and most of the energy is displaced from the NE side of the system. The high pressure pushes it energy downward, and it spins clockwise. This gives us nice clear days without a cloud in the sky. The position of these two weather entities are what we call weather. Spring is normally associated with nice clean surf, sometimes very powerful. It depends on what the El Nino, or La Nina factors as to a good, or poor surf spring. In the beginning of the spring season, cold fronts will have the steam to push through the Florida peninsula. With this we generally start with ESE winds, shifting to South, then to SW, then to West, then to NW. After the front the winds can stay NW, or go North, NE or to East. These things are due in part to how the jet stream positions itself along the eastern seaboard. The suction side (the low) pulls it’s energy towards it. SE winds will start a blowing moving the water. The longer time and distance, the bigger the waves. Next is with the SW winds, the surf is now cleaner, smoother, and a term we call glassy. This type of wind driven surf usually doesn’t last very long. A short period and short duration. Here today, gone tomorrow.

Summer surf is considered by many surfers as to be flat. High pressure out in the open Atlantic waters spins and moves water towards our shores. This time is mostly with real small surf. No bigger that waist high, and yes the surf can get bigger on occasion, but the general rule is very small, flat like conditions. Most surfers like to travel abroad for surf. Summer weather is mostly local weather. Local weather is motivated by the heat of the day, not like national weather which drags in the cold and pushes cold fronts through the state. The day in the summer consists of light offshore winds, or no winds at all. About 10:30am each day the sea-breeze kick into gear whether you are in Cocoa Beach or Melbourne Beach. By 1pm each day it looks like a small level 2 whitewater rafting experience. The smaller the surf the more the winds change the quality. I’ve seen bigger surf days where the winds do not have as much impact unless the winds are howling. The sea-breeze is created by rising air currents over the central parts of the state of Florida. As the air rises, the air starts moving from water to land creating the sea-breeze front. Warm moist air rising with our humidity creates clouds, which leads to afternoon thunderstorms. Even in the spring and the fall we do have these sea-breeze fronts happen. Winds continue to move water towards land, and therefore we have small summer waves. Go early and have glassy conditions. Sometimes tropical systems do form and affect our weather conditions, but it’s a carbon copy each year.

Late Summer, or Fall we are now into the meat of tropical season. We are now heading towards the peak of tropical season. If you live in Florida, along the coast you might get a direct hit like we did in 2004 (Frances, and Jean). Tropical season is know for well, “hurricanes“. Tropical systems form all over the tropical Atlantic basin, and even in the Gulf of Mexico. When these systems form they’re generating swells which become breaking waves along our coastline. The stronger the weather system, the larger, more angry, and more powerful the ocean will be. This is a time that most seasoned surfers are waiting for. No need to go travel when it’s right in your backyard. This is also a time when fronts start to move into the southeast US. This starts the cycle all over again on the way to winter. We have had big hurricane surf and hard NE winds because of the weather pattern, and the position of the high pressure. (fall 2010). As the sun moves towards south towards the southern hemisphere national weather systems make the way into our area, and with it the temperature changes which signify fall and the coming of winter. Winds are more aggressive from the North to NE. This brings big winds swells mostly more in October before the calming about November. Near the last part of October we do experience a significant cool down warning us of the season of cold.

Winter is the coldest period here. Wetsuits, booties, and cold water surf is what we have to deal with. During this period we do have some decent swells, but we can still have the pattern of a front comes in and the winds start from the SE and then clock around as the front marches through the state. If we are lucky a low will build on the tail end of the front and move across the Atlantic making for a few days of good surf. A lot of times the surf is small and cold. Winds can be offshore more or just real light until the next front moves into our weather window. When a low pressure moves across the US, and the jet stream drops low enough we can get some decent swell action. Sometimes we average waist to chest high surf and sometimes the surf can be flat or really big.

The wind bringith surf, and the winds take it away, so be careful of what you wish for because of how weather affects the surf. Wind chop surf is something that we deal with living Florida more than we care for. We do have those offshore days and get great surf to ride, but there’s no constant when it comes to weather. Things change and therefore the weather patterns change, month to month, year to year. A great guessing game it is. Fall, winter, and spring normally have bigger surf on average, but things can change it to flatus for extended periods. Summer is a smaller surf period, but it can explode with big surf depending on what the weather pattern is. These are few areas of the weather/surf relationship. Study the weather and you’ll get smarter about good-vs-bad wave days. Good luck and happy surf and weather to you.

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