Ireland is Europe’s westernmost North Atlantic outpost. Its 3,100km of coastline is hilly for long stretches and comprises rugged cliffs and innumerable bays with wide sandy beaches. The interior consists of extensive lowland – less than a sixth ...
Northern Europe lies in the westerly wind zone between 40° and 60° North, whereas the south is influenced by the subtropical high pressure belt. As the global weather machine migrates south for winter from its northern summertime position, European weather patterns also shift with the changing of seasons. In summer, approaching Atlantic low pressures track way up north, minimising the wind yield in Northern Europe. The likelihood of summertime wind is highest in Ireland, Scotland, Denmark and West Scandinavia; Cornwall and Brittany markedly lose out on strength and frequency as they’re often under the influence of the Azores High. In contrast, Portugal profits from the Azores High as it provides a northerly airflow. Thanks to channelling effects, local thermals, and a heat low over the Iberian Peninsular, this ambient wind builds to a useful ‘Nortada’.
In winter the storm low corridor sits further south, so the Christmas trees bow in the wind from the North Sea down to northern Spain. The largest waves also occur during this stormy weather. Admittedly, a break is enforced from January to mid-March north of Brittany – although the Gulf Stream delivers mild temperatures to the west coast of Europe (while the east coast of Canada at the same latitude disappears under snow and ice), water temperatures under 10°C and air temperatures of 5-10°C are still too cold even in thick neoprene. In summer you’ll appreciate at least a short-arm steamer in Northern Europe with water temperatures of 16-18°C, while the cool North Atlantic current ensures that even Portugal isn’t a reliable shorty territory.
Northern Europe gets the best blend of summer and winter scenarios in spring and autumn. Like beads on a necklace, deep low pressure systems string out across the Atlantic ensuring regular strong winds on most coastlines from northern Spain to Scandinavia. Waves are also abundant – groundswell from the stormy Atlantic reaches Europe’s western shores at least two out of every three days, and even on the North Sea (whose small fetch can only generate windswell) strong winds can agitate the water enough to create mast-high waves. And the mercury remains high as spring is blessed with warming sunny spells, and autumn retains warmer sea temperatures.
Northern European tides are some of the biggest in the world and can have considerable influence on the quality of the spots. Reckon on a 4-6m tidal range around the British Isles – and numbers like that mean the risks of tidal currents shouldn’t be underestimated. The largest tides measured are 11m in the Bay of Saint-Malo in the English Channel and 13m in the Bristol Channel. Tidal influence diminishes south of Brittany, but the range is still 2-4m in Portugal and much of the North Sea.
In summertime the Azores High extends into the Mediterranean bringing generally nice, dry weather. The summer winds that fan the western Mediterranean are generally weak, but the heat and topography ensure a couple of pleasant surprises. On many coasts the western Med is almost totally enclosed by high mountains, forcing the wind through few gaps between them. The venturi effect through the 14km-wide Strait of Gibraltar is a safe bet that Tarifa owes its legendary wind stats to. In summer, easterly Levante often blows between the south-east edge of the Azores High and a North African heat low – often for days, sometimes weeks at a time. But the biggest bonus is when an air mass manages to cross the mountains towards the Mediterranean before rushing out to sea. The most famous example of this is the venturi and downdraft wind called ‘Mistral’ in the Gulf of Lion. Its power can extend over 1,000km to Sicily, but the west coast of Sardinia comes out particularly well. However, the Mistral is much rarer in summer than the cooler months of the year. Stable summer high pressures create a moderate north-westerly wind in the enormous mountain gulf containing the Adriatic that’s boosted to reliable planing strength between the Croatian islands. In contrast, from May to September the eastern Mediterranean enjoys a sustained pressure gradient between a ridge of the Azores High and low pressure over the Middle East. This low isn’t the same as the westerly wind zone’s cloud-rich systems. Regionally it’s a summer heat low focussed over southern Turkey, but on a much larger scale it’s the dry trough of the Indian monsoon low. The pressure gradient is particularly steep in the Aegean, explaining the Meltemi’s reputation as a reliable wind source in the Cyclades. Much further east the pressure differential is much lower, but thermal lows on the coast of Lebanon still ensure a reliable sea breeze. Mediterranean temperatures are balmy compared to Northern Europe. In the west they rise to 25°C, the east reliably over 30°C. As the Mediterranean has little exchange with the Atlantic, the waters also warm up to over 25°C in summer and thanks to an average depth of 1,400m, it can retain residual warmth for comfortable surfing right into autumn.
The Azores High retreats to the Atlantic in winter and relocates its focal point a degree or two of latitude further south. Low pressure troughs from the westerly wind zone repeatedly break into the Mediterranean, first hitting the Strait of Gibraltar where the westerly Poniente is accelerated by the venturi. Low pressure regions also develop in the Mediterranean in winter, often bringing plenty of rainfall and thunderstorms. The heavy low pressure activity is frequently broken by friendly high pressure phases, but Mistral and Tramontana also regularly whip through the Gulf of Lion. An influx of cold air katabatic wind on the Dalmatian coast, the Bora also occurs more often.
The Mediterranean is too small to produce long period groundswell like the Atlantic, yet waves do occur. Mainly in winter, the best come from strong Mistral with Sardinia scoring the lion’s share. Low pressure can also build southerly windswell that reaches the Adriatic as well as Sardinia. If the lows progress further east they bring westerly windswell to Lebanon. In contrast, summer is a time of small waves in the whole Mediterranean. Tides within this vast yet enclosed body of water are barely perceptible.
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