Can We Predict the Next Hurricane Patricia?

How does such a strong storm form? What can we do to prepare for the next one?

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #167

Easy Come, Easy Go

As Mexico braced for the worst, Hurricane Patricia made landfall on the evening of October 23, 2015 near the town of Cuixmala. They had every reason to be worried. The storm had intensified to a Category 5 hurricane only over the previous 24 hours leaving many with not a lot of time to prepare. The only other Category 5 hurricane to strike Mexico’s western coast hit in 1959 and caused close to 1800 deaths.

However, the worst to come from Hurricane Patricia for Mexico appears to be some scattered property damage, flooding and mudslides with zero casualties. In part, the people of Mexico deserve credit for the minimal destruction due to their quick response and evacuation. However, the majority of the credit goes to Mother Nature.

Hurricane Patricia targeted less populated areas by passing between the larger coastal cities of Manzanillo and Puerto Vallarta, while also missing Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city. The highest winds (known so far) recorded after landfall clocked in at 165 miles per hour, still in Category 5 territory but much lower than the 200 miles per hour measured earlier that day. The worst winds only extended as much as 30 to 35 miles past the center of the storm. Although the peak winds measured during Hurricane Katrina were slightly lower at ~145 miles per hour, the eye of the storm that hit New Orleans was almost four times as large, thus spreading those winds over a much larger area.

Hurricane Patricia also hit rugged mountain terrain almost immediately. Mountains tend to break up any ordered motion in the atmosphere and weaken the cyclone’s spiral pattern. The hurricane was thus downgraded almost as quickly as it had intensified, rising by 106 millibars of pressure and dropping wind speeds down to 75 miles per hour in less than 24 hours after reaching the coast.

Predicting the Next One

Predicting the weather is challenging due to a large number of unknown parameters ...

The conditions for making a hurricane are most easily met from June 1st to November 30th each year, a period known as hurricane season, although hurricanes are by no means restricted to these dates. An estimated 12 hurricanes form on average each year over the Atlantic Ocean basin. So how can we be sure we are prepared for the next one?

Much of the information gathered for Hurricane Patricia in the hours before landfall when it was upgraded to a Category 5 storm came from so-called Hurricane Hunters, brave members of the Air Force and the NOAA who fly directly into the storm in order to take pressure and wind speed measurements. This on-the-spot data allowed weather trackers to follow the storm’s intensification in near real time. Once these measurements were in hand, the people of Mexico began to prepare for the storm’s arrival immediately. However, these measurements weren’t available until a mere 12 or so hours before the monster storm made landfall.

As we have discussed here in the past, predicting the weather is challenging due to a large number of unknown parameters that must be input into any predictive model. However, as atmospheric scientist Adam Sobel explains, the rapid intensification observed for Hurricane Patricia is beyond the reach of even our best current models. Thus nothing short of a major new research initiative toward the development of better models of weather-related phenomena like hurricanes may help our predictive powers. In the mean time, let's be thankful there are Hurricane Hunters!

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Ask Science’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Ask Science on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.

Image courtesy of NASA / Flickr.


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About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.