Now this is scary. A tragic development you’d tend to see in a disaster movie screenplay and not in any typical meteorological record for any 36 hour period. But here we have it.
Patricia, as of 36 hours ago, was a rather mild tropical storm churning through the human hothouse and El Nino warmed Eastern Pacific. The storm was predicted to make landfall in Western Mexico as a hurricane, then turn north into Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi — dumping extreme rains over a drought stricken region. But there was little hint as to what would happen next.
(Patricia becomes the strongest Western Hemisphere storm ever recorded as it sets sights on a swath from the Pacific Mexican Coast and on through to Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas. Video Source.)
Favorable atmospheric conditions and next to zero wind shear set the stage for strengthening. But the main driver was the hot ocean water which Patricia could tap as fuel for rapid intensification. For the entire region now features ocean surface temperatures in the range of 30 to 31 C (86 to 88 F) or about 2-3 degrees Celsius above average. It’s heat fed by an El Nino that could be one of the top three strongest on record. Heat further intensified by a human forced warming of the globe that has now hit about 1 C above 1880s levels. Heat that would allow Patricia to hit never before seen heights of storm force in a period of extraordinarily rapid intensification.
They call it bombification for a reason. Pressures drop rapidly, wind speeds rage to epic force, and the storm presents a tell-tale angry red signature in the infrared satellite shot. During recent years, bombification has become an all-too-common word associated with ocean storms that are now feeding on unprecedented amounts of heat, moisture, and temperature differentials. Some have even claimed that Hansen’s terrifying ‘Storms of My Grandchildren’ are starting to arrive early. But what happened with Patricia was even outside the new abnormal bombification ‘norm.’
(Enhanced image from NOAA’s twitter feed shows stadium effect and a deadly symmetry similar to that of Typhoon Haiyan. As of the 2 PM EST National Hurricane Center update, Patricia featured a 879 mb minimum central pressure — or lower than that of Haiyan at 895 mb. Image source: NOAA Satellite Pictures)
Though weather models did forecast a rapid strengthening for Patricia, the kind of strengthening we ended up with was something freakish, historic and extraordinary. In a 36 hour period pressures plunged from a mild 990s mb storm to a system featuring an 880 mb minimum central pressure. This raging period of ocean-shattering intensification propelled Patricia to a dubious status of most intense storm ever recorded for the Western Hemisphere over centuries of barometric readings. Winds also rapidly strengthened — roaring up from 40 miles per hour to a current top intensity of 200 miles per hour. That’s 160 mph of wind intensification in a little more than 36 hours.
According to meteorologist Phil Klotzbach of Colorado State University in USA Today:
Patricia’s winds intensified a whopping 109 mph during Thursday, rising from a tropical storm to a Category 4 hurricane. It was the fastest intensification ever recorded in the eastern Pacific Ocean, according to meteorologist Phil Klotzbach of Colorado State University (emphasis added).
It was a never-before-seen pace of intensification. One that begs the question — how can we prepare for major storms if bombification starts to occur more rapidly than we can respond?
At current intensity, the storm is now comparable to the monster western Pacific Storms — Haiyan (195 mph and 895 mb) and Tip (195 mph and 870 mb) — otherwise known as the strongest storms ever recorded. And all this fury now aimed at a well-populated swath from the Pacific Coast of Mexico through to the Gulf Coast of the United States.
An Unimaginably Dangerous Storm Following a Ridiculously Dangerous Path
The potential for tragedy in this situation cannot be understated. A similar strength Hurricane Haiyan — also fueled by abnormally hot waters made hotter by human-forced warming — rendered tens of thousands homeless even as it resulted in the horrible loss of 6,300 souls.
Patricia falls into this high-danger category for a few reasons. The first is that the storm is expected to maintain its extreme Category 5 intensity all the way through to landfall — which is predicted to occur within the next 10-12 hours. Abnormally intense ocean heat content along the path of Patricia, as seen in the graphic below, will continue to provide the powerful storm with fuel as it encroaches upon the Mexico Coast.
(Ocean heat content and predicted storm path by Colorado State University.)
As a result, a 15-30 mile swath of the Mexican coast may experience sustained winds near or in excess of 200 mph with gusts up to as high as 250 mph. That’s tornado intensity winds — with the ability to flatten homes or hurl cars through the air — but spread out over an area the size of a small state. Storm surges and related onshore waves are expected to be ‘catastrophic’ (the National Hurricane Center’s words). How catastrophic is unclear (no specific surge height predictions are given), but taking such extreme wind speeds and low pressures into account, we could certainly expect surges near and to the right side of the storm center to be in the range of 20-30 feet+.
If Patricia slams into the coast at a direct angle, then impacts will be limited to a smaller area. But recent tracking has set Patricia on a more oblique path — which means numerous communities may see severe impacts if Patricia spends hours skirting the coast. In total, more than 7 million residents live in the coastal regions along the path of this storm with more than a million in the zone likely to be impacted by the most intense winds and storm surges (see more here).
As Patricia begins to interact with the mountainous terrain near the coast, it should begin to weaken even as it dumps heavy rainfall predicted to be in excess of 20 inches over a broad region. Already, moisture and storm outflow from Patricia are being caught up in the Jet Stream and pulled north and eastward over Texas. By Sunday, the remnants of Patricia are expected to combine with a non-tropical cyclone in a kind of hybrid system which is predicted to, in turn, dump between 5 and 12 inches of rain over a wide section of Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas even as it lashes coastal regions with 60+ mph winds.
(NOAA 5 day precipitation forecasts show severe rains hitting drought stricken regions of Texas, Arkansas and Lousiana as the remnants of Patrica track northward. Image source: NOAA.)
This storm will provide yet one more weather whiplash to a region that experienced severe flooding this past Winter and Spring only to be replaced by severe flash drought conditions and extreme wildfire outbreaks during late Summer and early Fall. Patricia’s expected flooding rains will begin what is predicted to be an extremely wet Winter for the region — providing no relief from the highly varied conditions that have impacted this area for some time now. The kind of extreme weather variation that scientists warned was also a potential upshot of human-forced climate change. And, in this case, a record strength storm fueled by a near record El Nino, forming in a record hot world, and feeding on record hot Pacific Ocean waters is the delivery mechanism for the predicted switch.
UPDATE: Patricia is now in the process of making landfall about 20-30 miles to the west of Manzanilla, Mexico. According to the latest advisory from the National Hurricane Center, maximum sustained winds have fallen slightly to a still ridiculous 190 mph even as the minimum central pressure has backed off to around 900 mb. Such an intensity still likely puts it in the range of strongest landfalling storms in North America after the Labor Day Hurricane (892 mb).
(Patricia is making landfall just west of Manzanillo, Mexico. Image source: NOAA/NHC.)
Thoughts and prayers go out to all in the path of this monster. Please stay safe!
Hat Tip to DT Lange
Hat Tip to Greg
Hat Tip to Colorado Bob