Lessons From Patricia
Failing to bring about the kind of devastation a 200-m.p.h.hurricane does because (a) it did not have 200 m.p.h. winds when it reached the coast and (b) it hit a sparsely populated area, Hurricane Patricia immediately became an example of how hurricanes have become a ping-pong ball between two different climate agendas, as I wrote about a few days ago. As Patricia grew to scary dimensions, the screams grew from what seems to be a cadre of Climate Ambulance Chasers who claim that Patricia, like Irene or Haiyan, is evidence of so-called climate change. (Again, no one denies that the climate changes, it’s just the cause that is up for debate.) Interestingly enough, Irene fell apart coming up the East Coast, something that may not happen in coming years. And in the late 1800s, a similar storm to Haiyan instead of weakening went into Haiphong and killed over 250,000 people.
My point is that every storm now is being blamed on climate change, but no one is accountable for their ideas when a storm falls apart.
This list should put some of the “it’s worse than ever” cries to rest. Example: A flood on the Yellow River in China killed 900,000 people. What’s remarkable is that when you look at the top 16 at the end of the file, in spite of better detection methods and more people living in harm’s way, it seems like the spread is fairly even.
Amazingly, the very day I wrote the hurricane ping-pong ball article the media played right into the missive with agenda-driven statements on the storm.
Early Friday, I informed people through Twitter that Patricia would be off her peak when she hit: “Patricia should weaken a bit before landfall as monster storms need perfect conditions and drier air may get entrained. Still a beast though.”
The point is the weakening was being seen, and I assume by more people than me. Monster storms like this need perfect conditions to remain powerhouses. I use the analogy of the 9.1-second, 100-yard sprinter. Just a tweaked hamstring and he is nothing out of the ordinary anymore. The stronger the system, the more perfect the conditions have to be. So if you “tweak” the perfect hurricane with less than perfect conditions, it will weaken. Patricia “filled” 30 to 50 millibars (rapid pressure rise) as it approached the coast in the last six hours — the exact opposite of what happened when it ramped up. The power and impact scale I have takes into account pressure rises and falls. A storm filling (intensifying) more than two millibars per hour gets a category subtracted (added) to it; more than four millibars per hour, it’s two categories.
This is not my original idea. I learned this method from two National Hurricane Center forecasters, Gil Clark and Bob Case, in the 1980s. The physical reason likely lies with the fact that in a rapidly weakening system, the storm’s ability to bring strongest winds to the surface is impeded, since the very reason it is weakening means there are processes occurring to disrupt it! Naturally, the opposite is true. But my power impact scale said this was no more than a Category 3. It rivaled Lili in the Gulf as it approached Louisiana in 2002, falling from a Category 4 to a 1 in just 12 hours. In that case it was because of dry air and cool water left from Isadore a week or so earlier, but the same thing happens. With Patricia, there is a chance they will find an area that sustained Cat. 5 winds, but it would be a very tiny area. In the large scale, the rapid weakening means the power and impact scale I have, which is meant to give people an idea of the total power of the storm, says this was a major storm but not as extreme as the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, Camille in 1969, Janet in 1955 and several other storms in the Atlantic basin!
Conversely, storms like Celia in 1971, which went from a Category 1 to a 4 in 24 hours, or Humberto in 2007 can do the opposite.
But here is my argument as to why a hurricane like Patricia does not support the argument that storms are stronger. We just observed a beast over the water, the strongest ever observed in the Western Hemisphere, right? Well, a lot of Cat. 3s have hit the coast that did not have reconnaissance, so how do we know if they were not that strong over the water? We don’t. The only true metric is landfall intensity, which we have known through the years because there have been observations on land all that time. So in reality, though powerful, Patricia was just another strong hurricane that hit the Mexican coast. If this were the 1950s, you may not have even known. Speaking of the 1950s, did you know that the only Atlantic basin recon disaster occurred with Janet in 1955, which made landfall as a 914 mb hurricane? The recon went down in the storm, likely because the extremely low pressure of the storm caused its altimeter to malfunction. We had recons, but they were very infrequent, not constant like we see now. Patricia likely did not beat Janet at landfall (it hit from the Caribbean), as the pressure had already risen to 910 mb two hours before landfall and it was filling rapidly. It did not beat the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 with a verified land pressure of 892 mb.
Think about that. Patricia was south of Mexico. The Labor Day hurricane of 1935 went through the Florida Keys!
Events like the 1935 storm, Janet, Celia, etc., are a warning that the rapid weakening of Patricia is not something that occurs with every storm. Large, powerful storms such as Katrina and Rita will weaken as much as a day away because their circulations are such that they pull in drier air from land. Both weakened to Cat. 3s from Cat. 5s. But storms like Camille (1969) and Charley (2004), both of which, by the way, occurred in El Nino years, were at their peaks when they hit. The smaller, more intense storms approaching our coasts, which don’t have mountains right on top of the beach, do not act the same way as what we saw with Patricia. Moral of the story: Each one is unique to the circumstance it’s in. And every example of “worst ever” can be countered with an example of the opposite.
With the Atlantic coming to life in the coming years, look for that missive to grow even more distorted. That’s a forecast you can bet on!
Joe Bastardi is chief forecaster at WeatherBELL Analytics, a meteorological consulting firm.
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