As Patricia, the biggest storm ever recorded in the western hemisphere, made landfall on the Mexican west coast on Friday Bill Patzert, climatologist at Nasa’s jet propulsion laboratory explained its origins. The current El Niño was “high-octane fuel for hurricanes” because it had “piled up a tremendous volume of warm water in the eastern Pacific”.
The water temperature is 30.5C (87F), close to a record high and about 2C above average, creating ideal conditions for strong hurricanes. There is more energy to create stronger winds and pick up more moisture. The exceptional sea temperature is a combination of the very strong El Niño and climate change, which is raising average sea temperatures across the globe.
Patricia gathered pace dramatically reaching the highest category 5 hurricane but fortunately, as the storm made landfall in a mountainous region, the peaks took the brunt of the 200mph winds and “tore the bottom out of the storm.” However, the mountains caused the clouds to rise and cool down dumping large quantities of rain.
Scientists are sure of the link between El Niño and extreme weather because in 1997, during the last El Niño of this intensity, multiple hurricanes battered Mexico. So Patricia is likely to be the first of several intense storms that will make landfall along the west coasts of Mexico and the US for the next few months. This will almost certainly end the four-year drought in California with repeated deluges in January. In a warmer world many scientists believe such weather extremes will be happening regularly, causing havoc for vulnerable communities.