Premonition

My local break going off thanks to 2005’s Tropical Storm Eugene.
Today is the first day of the Eastern North Pacific Hurricane Season.  If that sounds ominous, that’s because it is. The experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are predicting that this region will have 14 tropical storms, eight hurricanes and four major hurricanes between today and the 30th of November. Each day between now and then I will receive an email from NOAA’s National Weather Service entitled Eastern Pacific Tropical Weather Outlook. Most of these emails will be the same. They will read:
FOR THE EASTERN NORTH PACIFIC…EAST OF 140 DEGREES WEST LONGITUDE…

TROPICAL CYCLONE FORMATION IS NOT EXPECTED DURING THE NEXT 48 HOURS.

But as we approach the end of August, there will be an increasing frequency of warnings that describe the potential in terms of percentages for “areas of disturbance” to develop into a tropical storm. As ocean temperatures between the Tropic of Cancer and the Equator increase, so do the number of storms. Historically, most major storms have hit the Baja Peninsula in the first half of September. Right when it’s hotter than Hades on the East Cape, and therefore when I’d prefer not to be there. But someone’s got to take care of the dogs and Felipe, mop up any rain that is blown under doors, report damage to people less stupid and safely tucked in homes located somewhere North of the danger.
I regard this hurricane season with a sense of foreboding. Not only did we not have any storms last year, which the law of averages dictates has upped the chances of at least one storm hitting us this year, but as I scanned down the list of names for this year’s storms, a sense of intuitive premonition descended upon me as I noted that 14 out of 24 of the names on the list are those of people I know. Many of them are not ordinary names and owing to my decade of living in isolation, I probably know a lot less people than the average Jova. I might not know any Xinahs or Zeldas, but I do know, in more than just a passing fashion, people with the names starting with the letters A, C, D, E, G, H, I, K though R, T, V and W. That sends my intuition a flutter. I think it’s time to buy hurricane insurance.
Here is the list of names storms will be given in 2011:

NAME                               PRONUNCIATION
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ADRIAN                            AY- DREE UHN
BEATRIZ                           BEE- A TRIZ
CALVIN                             KAL- VIN
DORA                               DOR- RUH
EUGENE                          YOU- JEEN
FERNANDA                      FER NAN- DAH
GREG                               GREG
HILARY                             HIH- LUH REE
IRWIN                               UR- WIN
JOVA                                 HO- VAH
KENNETH                         KEH- NETH
LIDIA                                 LIH- DYAH
MAX                                  MAKS
NORMA                             NOOR- MUH
OTIS                                  OH- TIS
PILAR                                PEE LAHR-
RAMON                             RAH MOHN-
SELMA                              SELL- MAH
TODD                                TAHD
VERONICA                       VUR RAHN- IH KUH
WILEY                               WY- LEE
XINA                                  ZEE- NAH
YORK                                YORK
ZELDA                               ZEL- DAH
Looking on the bright side I remind myself that tropical storms and hurricanes produce waves. The bigger, more powerful the storm, the bigger and more exciting the waves. If luck is on our side, the edge of a storm stays out at sea and far enough away to keep local ocean surface conditions smooth and clean, sending only the swell that surfers love to ride. When this happens the East coast of Baja wakes up with a start. Waves appear where 99% of the time there are none. Bays nicknamed Babybeach for their calm waters most of the year turn into a maelstrom of kinetic energy where water rears up, crashing with forces that erode rocks and beaches moving vast quantities of sand and occasionally send hale and hearty surfers to the beach exhausted, sometimes beaten, with leashes and boards broken. Currents develop along the shoreline that are so strong only the experienced and the lucky manage to get out to the take-off spot without being washed hundreds of yards down the coast. It’s always exciting. And sometimes scary. Just like the storms themselves.
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Trembling

Saturday, the 27th of February, began like any other day. I sat down in front of the computer sipping my tea, a halo of sleepy haze slowly lifting from my brain. The radio chirped in the background as my eyes began to focus more clearly on the screen in front of me.

Cutting into my morning reverie like a serrated knife, I heard the urgent voice of a reporter say “8.8 magnitude earthquake”…and then “tsunami warnings are being issued…” Any remnants of brain fog were blasted out of the grey matter as I focused on the voice. “I repeat. There has been an earthquake in Chile. The seventh strongest earthquake ever recorded…fatalities are being reported. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center is issuing a tsunami warning for the greater Pacific Ocean…”

My heart began to race and images of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami flashed across my memory. I turned up the radio and searched the internet for specifics. Then I noticed I had a voicemail. It was my parents calling, worried that we were in danger. Two time zones ahead of us, they’d heard the news before we’d even crawled out of bed. I tried to return their call, but couldn’t get through.

Finding information on the internet proved to be difficult. Then emails started coming through from concerned friends and neighbors who were out of the country. One pointed to the Weather Channel web site as a source of information. The radio was repeating the same report over and over and only discussed the Hawaii Islands in terms of who was at risk. The reporters even admitted they focused on Hawaii because it was a US state. I still hadn’t heard anthing about Mexico. “Damn xenophobic American News stations!!” The same was true of the Weather Channel web site. The lower half of the peninsula was completely cut off on the map they posted of the North American west coast illustrating areas at risk. I finally found the American National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association’s Pacific Tsunami Warning Center web site: the warning level meter at the top of the page indicated that the severity of the tsunami was predicted to be HIGH.


My heart beat faster. I clicked on a link to the detailed written warning.

… A WIDESPREAD TSUNAMI WARNING IS IN EFFECT …

FOR CHILE / PERU / ECUADOR / COLOMBIA / ANTARCTICA / PANAMA / COSTA RICA / NICARAGUA / PITCAIRN / HONDURAS / EL SALVADOR / GUATEMALA / FR. POLYNESIA / MEXICO / COOK ISLANDS / KIRIBATI / KERMADEC IS / NIUE / NEW ZEALAND / TONGA / AMERICAN SAMOA / SAMOA / JARVIS IS. / WALLIS-FUTUNA / TOKELAU / FIJI / AUSTRALIA / HAWAII / PALMYRA IS. / TUVALU / VANUATU / HOWLAND-BAKER / NEW CALEDONIA / JOHNSTON IS. / SOLOMON IS./ NAURU / MARSHALL IS./ MIDWAY IS. / KOSRAE / PAPUA NEW GUINEA/ POHNPEI / WAKE IS. / CHUUK/ RUSSIA / MARCUS IS. / INDONESIA / N.MARIANAS / GUAM / YAP/ BELAU / JAPAN / PHILIPPINES /TAIPEI

SEA LEVEL READINGS CONFIRM THAT A TSUNAMI HAS BEEN GENERATED WHICH COULD CAUSE WIDESPREAD DAMAGE. AUTHORITIES SHOULD TAKE APPROPRIATE ACTION IN RESPONSE TO THIS THREAT. THIS CENTER WILL CONTINUE TO MONITOR SEA LEVEL DATA TO DETERMINE THE EXTENT AND SEVERITY OF THE THREAT.


And then among a long list of geographical locations and times that the tsunami could be expected, I found what I had been looking for, but hoped not to find –

MEXICO CABO SAN LUCAS 22.8N 110.0W 1749Z 27 FEB


My heart amped it up a notch. And then I thought “1749? Is that Zulu time? What?!” I mean, WHEN exactly is that?

It was 9:35 as I hurriedly looked up the conversion, but in my panicked state of mind I screwed up the calculation. Initially I thought it would be bearing down on us in minutes. “Shit!!” Then I redid the calculation and estimated a 12:49pm arrival. That gave us three hours to prepare. Immediately, I thought of all our friends and neighbors, the ranchers living on and near the beaches all around the peninsula. And there were several surfers and construction workers camped four miles down the road at Santa Elena on the beach. They probably didn’t have radios and I knew they didn’t have access to the internet. Did they know this was coming? Someone had to let them know.

My heart began to beat at a rate that I figured must be unsustainable and I started to feel a little light-headed. I quickly threw together a warning email including the text from the PTWC and sent it to everyone I knew living in the area. Then I started scurrying around the house like a mouse putting up stores for winter in the middle of a snowstorm. It was taking all my powers of concentration to keep my emotions in check and I wasn’t sure what I should be doing. After all, it was my very first tsunami warning. And all the while, in the back of my head, there was a battle raging on – a duel between two voices that said I needed to prepare for the worst, on the one hand, and a sense, call it intuition, that it was nothing and I needed to relax lest I have a heart attack.

Like the calm intuitive voice in the stormy space between my ears, Tony was unmoved, unfazed, completely unconcerned. And that just made me more frantic, feeling the need to move him into action. Now it was a duel of two against one, them against the voice that said it was better to be safe than sorry, better to take precautions than to be dead wrong. I tried these platitudes out on Tony. If they moved him, I couldn’t tell. I restrained myself from grabbing him by the shoulders and screaming in his face, “DON’T YOU CARE IF WE LIVE OR DIE?!! DO SOMETHING!!”

I decided I needed to do something productive and announced I was going to Santa Elena to warn the ranchers, workers and surfers. Trying hard to conceal his eyes as they rolled into the upper recesses of his skull, Tony handed me a radio as I jumped on the ATV. I finally felt like I had somewhere to put this energy that was overwhelming all my faculties with a sense of impending doom. A few hundred meters down the road it occurred to me to stop to check that I had enough gas to get there and back. Phew! The tank was full.

The first ranch I stopped at sits in an arroyo (dry river bed) right next to the sea, totally exposed. The women I spoke to probably thought I was out of my gourd. As I explained what could happen, they gradually came around. I left before confirming that they were able to convince their husbands that they needed to move to higher ground because some gringa loca said so.

Closer to Santa Elena, Fernando, the local surfing rancher, had heard something from the guys camping on the beach. I found them gathered on a rise by the roadside, all their belongings packed into their vehicles. They wanted to know if I thought they were safe on the small hillock they were standing on just above and about 50 meters from the sea. “They are telling people to get 100 feet above sea level,” I reported. When they pressed me if I thought that was necessary, I told them I was out of my league (I’m from Ontario, Canada for God’s sake!), but that I thought it was probably safer to be higher up. A couple of them nodded agreement, but they stayed right where they were.

I continued south down the coast. Explaining the situation to Felix the foreman, I began to notice the sea level in the bay behind him drop. It was 10:45. In a matter of minutes, the bay emptied of water. Rocks and reefs were exposed that in eight years of surfing this spot I’d never seen before. It was like somewhere some godhead pulled a plug in the bottom of the Sea of Cortez, as though it were a gargantuan bathtub. And then, before I could mouth the word “tsunami,” it turned and started rushing back in. Like the tide in fast-forward. That really got my heart beating. The words:

A TSUNAMI IS A SERIES OF WAVES AND THE FIRST WAVE MAY NOT BE THE LARGEST.

flashed through my head. I told Felix and made haste to my next stop. Returning Northward up the coast, the surfers stopped me to ask if I’d seen it. They were excited and amazed, giddy. Again I repeated the warning about the possibility of the next wave being larger. But as we stood there it started again. We watched as the sea level dropped, and again, it turned and came back in, all in a matter of minutes. I’d seen enough and wanted to get home. I still wasn’t convinced that this was the least of what we would see that day.

Back at home by 12:30pm, unsure, amped up, I convinced Tony to humor me and we made plans to go up the hill to the guest house to have lunch. All our preparations made, I was about to head up the hill when the voice on the radio reported “the threat is past for the area around Cabo San Lucas where open ocean buoys registered a tsunami wave of 1.1 foot.”

Only 1.1 foot??? I pondered the reality that a tiny wave generated by a powerful earthquake off of Chile had produced the dramatic changes in sea level we’d all witnessed that morning. While it may not have been life threatening, it was nevertheless a dramatic display of the power of nature to change the course of our lives. I considered how things might have been different had conditions and circumstances been altered.

The difference in magnitude of the Indian Ocean earthquake and this one were not all that great. According to Wikipedia, seismologists estimate that the earthquake was so powerful that it shortened the length of the day by 1.26 microseconds and moved the earth’s axis of rotation by 3 inches. Had the earthquake occurred in shallower water or had the tremor been sustained longer, the power of the tsunami generated would have been substantially greater.

At 2pm, as I felt the adrenalin begin to wear off, a massage therapist arrived for the appointment I’d scheduled earlier in the week and had forgotten in the midst of the morning’s melee. I lay down on her table and did my best to relax. As she began working out one of several knots that had taken up residence in my shoulder, oblivious, she pronounced, “you’re unusually tense today.”

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For detailed information on the 2010 Chile Earthquake and its Tsunami CLICK HERE.

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TSUNAMI

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I am about to go and run around letting neighbors and friends know that there is a tsunami warning for the Baja Coast (along with the entire Pacific Ocean region) as a result of the huge earthquake in Chile. The more I read the more I freak. I’m going to pack up my trusty Mac computer and get to high ground. Let’s hope it’s just a lot of hype and that we’re far enough around the tip of the peninsula not to be as greatly impacted. Hmmmm, not a fan of that word IMPACT right now. Wish us luck.

“Tsunami”

No, this is not the name for a variety of sushi roll or a type of fish found in Japanese waters. “Tsunami” is the Japanese name given to what many of you call a “tidal wave.” It translates from Japanese as “harbor wave.” It got this name because large ocean waves triggered by earthquakes or submarine sea floor slides can really focus their energy in and near harbors where historically there have been many great disasters, especially in Japan. By the way, the term “tidal wave” is a complete misnomer as the earthquake triggered tsunami has nothing to do with ocean tides, tides are driven by sun and moon gravitational forces on Earth’s ocean.

You may have seen tsunami in the news, the December 2004 tsunami event in Indonesia and perhaps more recently the less severe event in Samoa last year. Unfortunately much confusion comes from some internet sites that I will not post here that show fake pictures of tsunami. Those photos usually show some giant single breaking wave about ready to cover a coastline. That is not what happens. Below I provide a very brief heads-up on tsunami and what you might do in the case one comes to your coastline!

A tsunami is NOT like a normal ocean wave that is generated by wind. So surfers, forget it, you are not going to be able to ride a tsunami into fame and fortune, rather if you try you will be killed. Nearly all ocean waves you see are generated by wind and have distances between crests of a few hundred yards or less and intervals between success crests less than 22 seconds and most are less than 15 seconds, the most common being only about 4-7 seconds. They move at speeds nearly always less than 40 mph in deep water.

The tsunami on the other hand is different; it is called a “shallow water wave” because everywhere in the ocean water depths are considered shallow for this very long wave (on the order of miles). A shallow water wave is unique, it moves at a speed controlled by the depth of the water it moves in; that speed is basically proportional to the square-root of water depth. So the deeper the water the fast the tsunami can move.

It turns out that for average ocean depths of about 12,400 feet average tsunami speed is about 460 miles per hour! In deeper water they move faster and in shallower water they mover slower. In deep water the height of the tsunami is not large, but even if it were 40 feet high (which would be gigantic for a deep water tsunami height), that height is spread over a distance of many miles so a ship at sea would not even perceive the passage of that fast moving wave, but would bob harmlessly atop it not even knowing the tsunami had passed by at great speed (so much for the “Poseidon Adventure”).

Keep in mind the wave moves through the ocean in deep water, the ocean water does not move with the wave, rather it undulates up and down nearly in place. If this were not the case then waves moving from, for example, the Gulf of Alaska to the coast of Southern California would bring with them very frigid water temperatures that would plummet wildly below local water temperatures as waves came in; that does not happen, waves arrive from the Gulf of Alaska, but the cold water they move through stays nearly in place with the surface undulating in place as waves move by.

OK, so we have this very long wave speeding toward the coast and as water shallows the tsunami slows quickly, that causes the wave to contract like an accordion and causes water to pile up to make the wave much higher than it was in deep water. The wave eventually moves on shore as a large inundating surge of high water. There may be some breaking waves as seen in the video I attached but those waves are far too narrow to cause all the inundation you see, inundation occurs from the very long wave that pushes its water across the coast, obviously worse for larger tsunami.

So how much lead time and warning do you have before a generated tsunami strikes? That simply depends on where the tsunami comes from. If it has been generated locally by a local quake or submarine slide it, the tsunami can push onshore in minutes or less leaving little time to “escape/evacuate.” If you are at a coast and feel a large quake, ALWAYS race away from waters edge as fast as possible. Seek high ground or high well built structures immediately.

If a tsunami is generated by a quake far from you and it is large, it will eventually reach your coast! But you will not have felt the quake or may not even be aware a quake had occurred far across the ocean. We can estimate the water depth between you and the quake and get a good estimate of how long it will take to reach you. Remember on average it will be moving about 500 mph so far away does not mean far away in time!

Fortunately, as a tsunami moves away from its generating quake it spreads out, very similar to what happens if you drop a pebble in a pond, the wave nearest the pebble is largest and waves propagating away get lower in height the farther they move from the pebble, because the energy is spread out over a greater and greater area.

The tsunami is very similar, except it will distort from circular because of varied bottom depth which causes it to move at varied speeds in varied directions. If the quake is far away you will normally have plenty of time to react to a tsunami warning siren and get away safely, those generated near you require very fast response usually well before any official warning blares from a siren! NEVER go to the coast to see the incoming tsunami. That behavior happened in Los Angeles in the 1980’s! People were crowding and hanging off of piers and jetties awaiting the arrival of the tsunami! Fortunately when it came if was only inches high and no one could see it by eye; man that could have been a huge disaster.

I leave you with one last thing about the tsunami that relates to its Japanese name “harbor wave.” Because its speed is controlled almost entirely by water depth, it is a slave to ocean bathymetry and is often distorted and bent by it, we call this wave refraction. The tsunami is so long that the refraction can be extreme and tsunami heights are often focused in bays and harbors. This same refraction can and does cause a tsunami to be able to bend all the way around an island and inundate the opposite side of the island relative to the direction it originally came from. So no island coastline is safe from a tsunami no matter what direction the tsunami originally comes from!

Taking Flight

Very near the new home on Maui is a special place or, more specifically, a special wave. The location is known as Pe’ahi (PAY-ah-hee) and the wave as JAWS. The wave is famous because when the swell direction and size are just right it breaks in a surfable wave that is several stories high.
To surf big waves (arguably one greater than 18 feet tall), it is necessary to be incredibly strong so that the speed of the board matches that of the wave. The bigger the wave, the faster the wave and the greater the speed necessary to catch it.

Some surfers are purists and believe that the only way to surf big waves is to paddle into them. Others have discovered that the paddling speed limitation can be overcome by the use of personal water craft (PWC) or jet skis, which tow the surfer onto the face of the unbroken wave at speeds equal to or greater than that of the wave. Tow-in surfing, as it is called, has made it possible for surfers to surf waves previously uncatchable – waves like Jaws.

Laird Hamilton, a life-long resident of the Hawaiian islands and all-round waterman, made tow-in surfing famous and is undeniably the best big wave surfer in the history of the sport.

On November 25th, conditions in the bay in front of the house appeared favorable to produce the kind of waves that tow-in surfers need to practice their sport. Waves 30 feet or more in size were looming large and crashing audibly on the rocky point a good mile away.

Driving by Ho’okipa Surf break on our way west towards town, the waves were huge and closing out. No one was in the water, an unusual occurrence. Then on the way back home a neighbor drove by with a PWC hitched to the back of his truck and a rescue board was thrown in the truck bed. That was a sure sign.

We drove the 2 miles west and made our way through the pineapple fields that border the surf at Jaws. Cars and more cars were coming and going, confirming my suspicion that today was the day. A crowd had gathered on the cliff overlooking the break. Down below were 15 or more PWC, half of them with surfers on the back or towed by a tow rope. Between where they sat and the horizon was a series of lines or “corduroy” – swell lines, long, deep and intimidating.

We watched along with about 30 others from atop the steep cliff that borders the ocean along most of the North Shore. There were serious photographers with big zoom lenses and tripods, locals with video cameras and digicams and European tourists speaking a number of different languages underdressed for the cool, misty weather.

As a set approached, two PWCs and their surfers began to jockey for position. The craft moved outside and then turned gradually shoreward. They moved slower than the forming wave, allowing it to catch up to them. The pilot determined where the peak would form and positioned rider accordingly. As the peak began to feather in the offshore wind, the better riders took a line deep into the pit forming below the peak, gained speed and released their hold on the tow line. The sling shot effect gave them added speed and their position on the wave so far away was detected mostly from the trail they carved along the face of the wave. Binoculars made the rider more apparent and the experience more real.




As the lip of the wave came thundering down, rider carved up and through the now concave face and then, careening back down the face, gained speed to outrun the jaws of the wave. A collective holding of breath, the crowd mind-surfed the wave with each rider, ooing and ahhing as they cheated death time and again. Wondering at their ability to hold it together as the wind flew up the face of the wave, bringing blinding water with it. Their balance and strength in the face of great opposing forces made apparent to all onlookers.

That night lying in bed, the waves pounded the coast, entering the subconscious to become part of the dreamworld where huge looming masses of water, speed and wind surrounded the dreamer. Exhilaration, and the closest thing to flight without wings.


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To see some incredible video taken at Jaws go HERE.
To learn more about Big Wave Surfing Click HERE.


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