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Monster Surfing Waves Originated in American Storms

January 30, 2013

By WeatherBug Meteorologist, Andrew Rosenthal


Although it will take some time to determine if the wave was a record-breaker, the exploits of American surfer Garrett McNamara are still rather impressive. McNamara purportedly rode a 100-foot wave in Portugal on Monday, which would break his own world record. Just as impressive is the conditions that led to this ride.

McNamara rode the waves at Praia do Norte, Portugal, about 60 miles north of the capital city of Lisbon. The beach town is well-known for its high waves - - McNamara set a record in 2011 there by surfing a wave 78 feet in height - - thanks to the nearby Nazare Canyon. The canyon extends west-to-east from well offshore to within a mile of the Portuguese mainland. This allows waves to rapidly build to heights of 50 feet or more without having an opportunity to break, making it one of the best surfing locations in the world.

Meteorological conditions set the stage for this awesome ride. Three weather systems, all familiar to residents of the Eastern Seaboard, set up the perfect situation to occur.

The first was an area of low pressure that stalled south of Iceland. This storm had originally moved across the East as an Alberta Clipper on Thursday, January 24, bringing a couple of inches of snow to the Mid-Atlantic. As the storm fed off the warm Gulf Stream, it rapidly intensified to become as strong as a Category 3 hurricane. Although there were no direct reports available, winds with this system were estimated in excess of 100 mph. It also produced 40 to 50 foot waves across the open ocean on Saturday.

The second ingredient was another storm system that moved off the East Coast. This one had advanced from the southern Plains to the Southeast, bringing freezing rain to the Carolinas and Georgia and a bit of snow along the Eastern Seaboard on Friday. It also cruised into the open Atlantic and strengthened, producing its own set of 30-foot waves this past weekend.

Directing these waves eastward was an area of high pressure that meandered from Florida across the Atlantic to the Spanish and Portuguese coast. Strong westerly winds around the northern periphery of this high pressure allowed the waves developed by the two storms to continue building as they headed toward shore.

Computer models indicated that the first storm system`s waves emanated eastward from the storm this weekend, approaching the coast of Portugal on Monday. The second storm set up camp a bit further to the south and east, producing its own set of waves that raced toward the coast a bit sooner.

The timing allowed the tide to team up, producing what one surfing expert called "heavenly perfect" conditions, with wave heights that regularly topped 60 feet. It was in this set of waves that McNamara made his historic ride.

As with any thrill-seeker, McNamara has had a tendency to over-estimate the size of the waves he rides. His November 2011 record-breaking surf was self-estimated at 90 feet, but was verified to be 78 feet from trough (bottom) to crest (top). He believes that this surf was higher than those waves.

Over the next couple of weeks, officials from Guinness World Records and the Billabong XXL will review video of the waves and McNamara`s ride to determine how high the waves were. In the meantime, Garrett McNamara will be out looking for more adventurous waves to surf.

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Story image: Garrett McNamara rides a wave at Praia do Norte, Portugal, on Tuesday, a day after his record attempt. (Francisco Seco, AP)

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