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Warm Waters Fuel Hurricane Patricia’s Record Strength

Major Hurricane Patricia underwent rapid intensification overnight in the northeast Pacific Ocean. In 24 hours, its strongest winds increased by 110 mph, the fastest intensification on record in the northeast Pacific. Its highest sustained winds are a staggering 200 mph, easily a Category 5 hurricane.

Patricia is the strongest hurricane on record in the western hemisphere, with a pressure measured from hurricane reconnaissance aircraft of 880 millibars. The storm is in the same class as Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated the Philippines in 2013. However, there was no reconnaissance measurement of the pressure of Haiyan, so Patricia’s winds may actually be stronger.

While an active hurricane season in the Pacific is expected in the El Niño season, this season has been phenomenal. Patricia is the 9th category 4 or 5 storm in the northeast Pacific, exceeding the old record of 8 set in 1997, when another strong El Niño was in place.

As the planet warms from increasing greenhouse gases, more energy is going into the oceans, which is an important component in the strength of hurricanes (also known as tropical cyclones). According to the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, the wind speed and rainfall rates in tropical cyclones are projected to increase during the 21st century, even while the total number of tropical cyclones remains nearly steady, or even decreases.

The wind speed with Patricia will weaken dramatically as it crosses Mexico, but its remnants will likely bring flooding rain to Texas late this weekend and early next week. It is a reminder that in a warming world, there is also more evaporation to drive storms, which corresponds to heavier precipitation.