Christmas in California: Venomous sea snakes and flooding high tides
By Rich Holland
El Niño is still throwing his weight around and the signs that this one of the big ones keep piling up. The second yellow-bellied sea snake of 2015 was found during a Surfrider volunteer cleanup of the Bolsa Chica Reserve on Saturday, Dec. 19 near Huntington Beach, California. The sea snake, which has a mouth too small to bite a human yet is still deadly, was found dead in a pile of tidal debris. There has only been one other sea snake reported in recent history and that also was during an El Niño season.
A series of moisture-laden storms swept through California the past month, mostly hitting the northern portion of the state, yet the passing fronts brought wind, cold air temperatures and increasing rain to Southern California, too. In a normal year, that would have plunged Pacific Ocean water temperatures into the 50s. The temperatures did sort of plunge, from 75 degrees in October and early November to 62 degrees along the beach and into the mid to high 60s offshore. During the first few windows between storms, boats headed offshore still caught blue marlin and yellowfin tuna.
Lately, it’s been yellowtail, white seabass and calico bass in the catch for kayakers working the coastal kelp beds of Southern California during the breaks in the weather, but the windows of opportunity have been tight and red crab concentrations are still abundant and can throw off the fishing.
Huge swells have already damaged piers and NOAA’s National Weather Service says chances of more destruction in the intertidal zone is extremely high due to El Nino’s influence on the high tides, particularly those extreme tides known as King Tides, or Spring Tide.
Over Thanksgiving, observed tides at several NOAA tide stations in Southern California were higher than ever measured before, even during storms…
Over Thanksgiving, observed tides at several NOAA tide stations in Southern California were higher than ever measured before, even during storms, which caused minor flooding around San Diego. NOAA experts say Californians may see similar high water levels from December 21-26, when more King Tides are predicted to occur. Flooding impacts may become significantly worse if King Tides coincide with a coastal storm.
King Tides occur several times a year around the U.S. when the moon is either new or full (aligned with the Earth and sun) and is closest to the Earth (perigee). In California and much of the West Coast, they occur in the months closest to the winter and summer solstices. These alignments in space and time are fairly predictable, and so are King Tides.
One difference this year is the occurrence of an El Niño, which NOAA predicts will be the strongest on record. Put simply, when there is an El Niño, sea levels on the West Coast are generally higher due to warmer, expanded ocean waters and changing weather patterns. Tides "ride" on top of sea level and are influenced by what is happening at any given time with climate and weather. This means that normal everyday high tides are already higher because of El Niño. On days when there are King Tides, they become even higher.
Another factor to consider is coastal storms and waves, which can cause an increase in water level on top of the already higher-than-normal tides. If a winter storm coincides with a King Tide event in this El Niño year, the total water levels may be extreme, and impacts may be even greater.
As luck would have it, a rare Christmas Day full moon coincides with the passage of a front through Southern California.
Climate scientists predict that El Niño will peak sometime in January-February of 2016, meaning that Californians can expect these especially high tide events to last through the winter.