Published in ATTN:
Hurricane Patricia, which made landfall on the southwest coast of Mexico, is by all accounts a monster storm. Between Thursday and Friday, Patricia swiftly grew from a category one hurricane to a category five tempest, with sustained winds that peaked at 200 miles per hour and gusts of close to 250 miles per hour. When it made landfall the winds had slowed slightly, blowing at 165 miles per hour, according to the New York Times. It’s the strongest and most rapidly intensifying hurricane on record, and forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate from Mexico’s Pacific coast as Patricia barreled towards the shore. Could it also be a product of climate change?
While most scientists are hesitant to directly link this particular hurricane to our greenhouse gas emissions, Patricia could still be a preview of the storms that global warming will set the stage for in the years to come. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, “[I]t is likely that greenhouse warming will cause hurricanes in the coming century to be more intense globally and have higher rainfall rates than present-day hurricanes.”
Much of the reason behind why climate change could cause stronger tropical storms boils down to the fact that warmer ocean water means more energy to feed the brutes. This year the waters in which Patricia formed have been unusually hot—about 88 degrees Fahrenheit—thanks to an especially strong El Niño, a meteorological event that occurs every few years. Normally, the trade winds blow across the Pacific Ocean from the east to the west, pushing the sun-heated surface waters towards Indonesia. During an El Niño event the trade winds break down, so those warm waters spread across the Pacific and the ocean’s surface doesn’t mix as much with the water below.
“It’s not just that it is warm water, but very deep warm water,” NOAA atmospheric scientist James Kossin told ATTN: Normally when a hurricane forms it churns up the ocean’s deeper, colder water, which then helps to dissipate it. Because the warm water went down to 200 feet where Patricia formed, heat just kept fueling the storm—leading to the hurricane’s rapid intensification.
While Hurricane Patricia may have been more influenced by El Niño than climate change, scientists fear that in the future the two phenomena could build on top of each other. Global warming means warmer sea surface temperatures, whether it’s an El Niño year or not. “As ocean temperatures continue to warm as a result of human-caused climate change, we expect hurricanes to intensify, and we expect to cross new thresholds,” Michael Mann, a climate researcher at Penn State University, told the Washington Post. “Hurricane Patricia and her unprecedented 200 mile-per-hour sustained winds, appears to be one of them now, unfortunately.”
If you are having trouble imagining what this new precedent is like, let Neil deGrasse Tyson lay it out for you:
“Sustained 200 mph hurricane winds are sufficient to strip the bark from trees that are not otherwise snapped from their base.”
Wow. In fact, some even argue that Hurricane Patricia warrants rethinking the traditional Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale. “The weakest category five would have 156 mile per hour [winds]. There is a 25 mile per hour bump between a four and a five,” Kossin said. “So, if you simply extrapolate, we’ve got a category six.”