Monday, October 5, 2009

5 Questions With A Surf Forecaster

Today's guest is someone I follow rather closely as he directly impacts much of my weekend morning planning. As a total ocean sciences geek myself I'm quite fond of how much detail I can get from him. Well, here - I'll let him introduce himself and answer the questions:

Adam Wright – Professional Surf Forecaster

I have been a professional meteorologist and surf forecaster since 1999 and have worked for many of the popular surf sites over the course of my career. Currently I am forecasting for my own website,, which is focused on providing easy-to-understand, and hopefully entertaining, surf forecasts for the Southern California region.

On the personal side I grew up in Orange County, went to school in Northern California (Humboldt State) for a number of years, and now I am back in Huntington Beach with my wife, 2 boys, and our bullmastiff puppy (which is sort of like having another kid who listens better, well sometimes listens better).

1. How did you first get involved in surf forecasting? What was it that interested you in doing this?

When you boil it down…and this might sound a bit cheesy…but what really got me interested in forecasting was that I just wanted to find good waves.

I lived just far enough from the coast that it took me about the same amount of driving time to hit 3 or 4 different Orange County surf areas...all of which had different swell windows and could handle the wind in different ways. My house was also just far enough that it was pretty frustrating to get all the way to the beach and find it flat or blown out…and then hear later from a buddy that it was firing somewhere else. (No one had cell phones when I was first driving…they did exist though…I am not that old…but you couldn’t get a text-message from your friend telling you that it was going off, you always heard it after the fact.). So I started listening to the lifeguard phone reports, watching the weather segments on the news, calling the surf shops and hassling them for updates. I just started to soak it up…picking up the basic theories of weather and how it created surf along the way.

I loved surfing and the ocean so much that I wanted to keep learning about it…eventually taking a lot of oceanography, meteorology, physical geography classes in college…and graduating with a degree in Geography. Along the way I managed to get an internship with Surfer Magazine helping with their Surf Report maps…(the ones that detailed the surf spots all over the world)…and like most internships it opened some doors and helped me to get my first job as a professional surf-reporter and forecaster, and I have been doing it almost non-stop ever since.

2. Can you explain a bit about the process in general - i.e. disciplines involved like geometry, trig, oceanography, meteorology, gut feelings, voodoo, etc.

Haha…there is definitely some voodoo involved…I have a globe at home that I stick full of pins, particularly when I have a surf trip lined up.

I actually use all of those disciplines you mention and a few more…Marine/Surf Forecasting is all about how the atmosphere, the ocean, and the land interact with each other. You need to have the basic concepts of how/why certain processes occur and their effects on conditions. Learning how to use remote sensing (things like buoys, satellites, weather stations, and ship-reports) is also a pretty part of it.

As for the forecasting process…in the simplest terms…surf forecasting is basically watching how the wind is blowing over the ocean. Wind generates all of our surfable waves…the more wind, going the right direction, the bigger the swell will be. The wind also effects how the surf conditions will be when the swell arrives so you have to watch it on both ends…globally as well as locally.

Since storms (low-pressure centers sometimes called just lows or troughs) are generally the strongest sources of wind, I spend a lot of time tracking them, watching their behavior, and trying to fill in the gaps in the data that I am getting from all of the various sources.

Fortunately over the last few years the NOAA swell model and satellite systems have gotten considerably better than when I first started forecasting…and so they can take a lot of the tedious legwork out of forecasting…it doesn’t get rid of the need for a human (so I get to keep my job) but it can help tremendously.

If any of you are interested in diving a little deeper into how our waves are made I have a good article on my site…it doesn’t go crazy into the science…but it really helps lay out the process, and who knows it might help you get a few waves down the road.

3. What is the most difficult part about forecasting surf? What is the easiest? What is your accuracy rate and how do you improve accuracy?

I think that communicating the forecast “details” can be the most difficult part…you have to constantly keep in mind that your audience all have different perceptions and concepts to what constitutes good surf...waist high mushers might be right in one person’s fun-zone, while double-overhead and hollow is what another guy is looking for. It doesn’t help that Southern California has a pretty dynamic swell window…and some swells will only hit a handful of spots…so sometimes you will call a swell correctly but a surfer may not have picked an exposed break and now in his mind you blew the forecast.

I think the easiest thing for me is to get fired up on the weather and storms…I love seeing mother nature tear it up, particularly when it way out in the ocean and not hurting anyone…I geek out on the stuff sometimes.

I would say that I have a pretty high accuracy rate…when I am off it is usually because I have a tendency to stay conservative, and will call a swell a bit smaller than it actually comes through. Now days it is hard to completely miss a swell…but they do occasionally slip through…mostly because of bad or missing data in the weather models (the computers have their weaknesses too).

As to improving the forecasts…I think there are a couple of things I could work on…trying to continue to improve the way the forecast is communicated is a big one, adding more detail for each of our little sub-regions would be a great way to do that. I think that seeing more improvements in the computer models and more advanced sensors for measuring the weather/wind over the empty stretches of ocean will be another way for everyone’s forecasting to improve.

4. I know there is an El Nino forecast for this winter, what can we expect the surf to be like in SoCal this season? Does the El Nino make your job easier or more difficult?

El Nino doesn’t really make the job more difficult…just a bit more interesting for SoCal. El Nino is just a condition of the ocean that shifts around some of the energy and causes the “normal” weather patterns to change…but it doesn’t change the way that our waves are generated, just where.

During El Nino years we usually see the storm track drop lower in latitude, which lets winter storms get closer and maintain more intensity while they are in our swell-window. It doesn’t guarantee good waves but it does increase the chances…on the flip side it also sort of strips out the high-pressure that deflects a lot of the wet weather during the winter…so we could see a much wetter winter/spring season than normal. Again if you guys want to get a little deeper into the details I have seasonal outlook for this years El Nino on my site.

5. Are you much of a surfer? If so, how often do you get out? If not, why not!?

I try and surf a lot…if the surf is good I will try and get out every day. I’m probably a pretty average surfer…so on the right days I can throw a little spray or find a little barrel section…nothing special, but I do have plenty of fun.


Lindsay said...

What an awesome job! There really are a lot of complicated details that us normal people don't even think about.

I do get pretty excited about a storm, though, too. Or, seeing Mother Nature "tear it up!"

Also great that he has a bullmastiff puppy!

Apryl DeLancey said...

Yeah, I really like to read his reports every day. I dig all the extra details.

I love how he says the puppy is another child - so true!