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Patricia, Record-Setting Monster, Beelines For Mexico

In 30 hours, Patricia has gone from a tropical storm to the strongest hurricane ever recorded. And it might not be done strengthening yet.

The storm is churning out eye-popping 200 mph sustained winds and is expected to make landfall in Mexico as an “extremely dangerous” Category 5 storm, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC). Patricia will bring devastation to coastal communities, heavy rains and mudslides to interior parts of Mexico and even contribute to the major rains that are hammering Texas and other parts of the South.

Hurricane Patricia as the suns comes up on it on Friday morning.
Credit: CIMSS

Here’s what you need to know about Patricia:

Patricia is a record-setting storm. The storm now holds a number of records. For starters it has the lowest-measured pressure of any hurricane in the Eastern Pacific or Atlantic oceans. Pressure is one measure of strength and generally the lower, the stronger. On Friday morning, Patricia officially reached 880 millibars. Typhoon Tip is still the overall record holder, with a central pressure of 870 millibars in 1979. The record-holder in the Atlantic is Hurricane Wilma, which reached 882 millibars during the blockbuster 2005 hurricane season.

With sustained winds of 200 mph, Patricia is the strongest hurricane to ever form when measured by wind speed. The only storm that could give it a run for its money is deadly Super Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated the Philippines in 2013. Haiyan’s winds were estimated to peak at 205 mph. However, those estimates come from satellites while Patricia’s winds were measured directly by a hurricane hunter aircraft, a much more accurate measure.

Patricia also blows away all other storms to form in the eastern Pacific or Atlantic basins, both of which are under the domain of the NHC. That includes notable storms like Katrina, Andrew, Gilbert and Wilma.

What’s even crazier about Patricia is that it could strengthen even more before landfall, according to the NHC.

And the storm is also one of the latest forming Category 5 storms in the eastern Pacific and one of the most rapidly intensifying storms in history as well. That’s one of the biggest reasons Patricia is in the record books.

Hot water is fueling Patricia’s rapid strengthening. The eastern Pacific is absolutely sweltering right now, with water temperatures as warm as 86°F. That’s more than 3°F above normal and it’s providing Patricia with a major boost.

El Niño certainly has a role to play. The last super El Niño in 1997-98 spawned Hurricane Linda, the former record-holder for the basin in terms of intensity.

Global warming is also piling up heat in the oceans. Globally, oceans are the warmest they’ve ever been and El Niño is just piling heat on top of that, creating conditions that are ripe for a strong hurricane like Patricia to form.

In the future, global warming is likely to mean the same or even fewer hurricanes, but more reaching major status.

People on Mexico’s west coast are about to face life-threatening conditions. With the storm expected to roar ashore as a Category 5, the winds alone will make being outside deadly. The Saffir Simpson scale, which is what’s used to measure hurricane wind speed, describes the impact of Category 5 winds this way:

“A high percentage of framed homes will be destroyed, with total roof failure and wall collapse. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last for weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.”

Patricia’s wind field is relatively small, with Category 5 winds currently extending 15 miles in each direction from its center, which is perhaps the only sliver of a silver lining with the storm. But widespread areas on Mexico’s coast, including tourist haven Puerto Vallarta, are in line to feel the wrath of the storm’s winds in some form.

Along the coast, the NHC warns of “extremely dangerous storm surge,” which could reach heights of 20 feet in some areas.

"I will compare (Patricia) with Hurricane Kenna of 2002," Hal Needham, a storm surge expert at Louisiana State University, said. "This had previously produced highest surge of 5 meters (16.5 feet), but Patricia is more intense and will make landfall farther south. We are entering new territory."

And though the storm should weaken fairly quickly once it moves inland, heavy rain on the region’s steep slopes will be a recipe for mudslides and further damage. Up to 20 inches of rain are possible in the Mexican states of Nayarit, Jalisco, Colima and Michoacán, according to CONAGUA, Mexico’s hydrometeorological service.

Texas will feel Patricia’s wrath, too. Even after the storm weakens and loses its tropical characteristics over Mexico, the U.S. will still see some impacts this weekend. Patricia is part of the trifecta of weather ingredients — the others being a low in over the U.S. and Gulf of Mexico moisture — coming together in the South to dump up to 11 inches of rain on the region throughout this weekend.

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Tropical Trends - Hurricanes and Climate Change The Power Dissipation Index has been on the rise since 1970, along with sea surface temperatures.

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