Hurricane Patricia newest in stream of El Nino hurricanes

Hurricane Patricia, one of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded, made landfall on the western coast of Mexico two weeks ago. With sustained winds of nearly 200 mph, it threatened to be one of the most devastating hurricanes in history.

“With this type of wind the damage is catastrophic,” Dennis Feltgen, a spokesperson for the National Hurricane Center in Miami, told the Guardian on Oct. 23. “There are very few structures that withstand this.”

Fortunately for the more than one third of a million people in its path, Hurricane Patricia dissipated just 30 hours after its peak intensity.

Bill Patzert, climatologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge, attributes Hurricane Patricia’s unusual strength to the current El Nino.

“El Nino is high-octane fuel for hurricanes,” Patzert told the Los Angeles Times. “A hurricane feeds off warm water, and of course now El Nino has piled up a tremendous volume of warm water in the eastern Pacific, which has fed these hurricanes.”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), El Nino is the result of a change in global trade winds. Normally, equatorial trade winds blow from east to west. These winds blow the Pacific Ocean’s warm surface waters to the west towards Indonesia.  This warm water piles up, making the waters in the western Pacific warmer than waters in the Eastern Pacific. Cold water upwelling in the eastern waters exacerbates this difference and is a result of the warm waters being blown west.

During an El Nino year, the trade winds relax, allowing the warmer waters to move eastward across the Pacific. This shift leads to a decrease in air pressure and thus an increase in total precipitation. Often, this takes the form of tropical storms or hurricanes that have far-reaching effects on global weather patterns.

Scientists expect this year’s El Nino to result in particularly strong storms.

“If you have warmer warm tropical ocean, the potential intensity of hurricanes increases,” Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at Stanford University told the LA Times.

“The ocean temperatures [in the Western Equatorial Pacific] are considerably above where they were on the strongest El Nino on record previously.”

Patzert expects this El Nino will affect winter weather throughout the United States. The Southern US, from Southern California to Florida, should expect a wet winter.  The upper part of the United States, including New England, can expect mild temperatures.

This is welcome news to regions battered by intense drought and massive snowstorms, respectively, in recent years.

Mike Halpert, deputy director of the Climate Prediction Center, shares Patzert’s expectations, but is more cautious, telling the LA Times that “when you’re dealing with climate predictions, you can never get a guarantee.”

Halpert would probably agree with Patzert on one thing, though: “The winter over North America is definitely not going to be normal.”