Right Opinion

A California Hurricane? Not Why, but Why Not?

Joe Bastardi · Aug. 21, 2018

This article caught my eye: “CBS Scares Viewers With Predictions of Climate Change Causing West Coast Hurricanes.”

This is one of those situations wherein reporters appear oblivious to something that has long been known — that one year, and more likely a year when El Niño is developing, southern California could get hit by a hurricane. It’s not unlike the paper I wrote in 2004 on how the Mid-Atlantic coast could eventually get devastated, a premise based on what my father has been talking to me about since I was a kid.

In my paper, entitled “The Philadelphia Story,” I opined that a northwest-moving Cat. 2 or 3 hurricane hitting just south of the mouth of Delaware Bay would drive a storm surge up the bay, even as flood waters are coming down the Delaware River. The lakes that are dammed up now to supply New York City with water in the Delaware River basin means that if heavy rains precede the hurricane, extra water would be released down the Delaware River, with storm surge and flood waters intersecting near Philadelphia, putting the port underwater.

In any case, the conclusion of the paper — which scrutinized the tracks of hurricanes in 1903, 1933, and 2003 (Isabel) and superimposed an upper air pattern similar to Hazel in 1954 — was that this scenario is something to look for simply because of nature. Again, it was written in 2004, and I talked to insurance companies about it. Sandy almost pulled it off, as we saw in 2012. But read about this hurricane in San Diego in 1858, from Wikipedia:

The 1858 San Diego hurricane was a very rare California hurricane. It is the only known tropical cyclone to impact California as a hurricane, although other systems have impacted California as tropical storms. The storm caused damage to many homes and other constructions in San Diego. San Pedro experienced heavy rainfall, El Monte experienced high winds that damaged its corn crops and trees, and Los Angeles and Visalia experienced large amounts of rain but low wind. A later estimate stated that if a similar storm happened in 2004, it would have caused $500 million in damage.

In late September 1858, a hurricane formed over the eastern Pacific Ocean, concurrent with a moderate El Niño event spanning 1857–58. Unlike most east Pacific storms, this one accelerated towards the north-northeast. On October 2, it neared Southern California while weakening due to cool water and strong wind shear. It just missed making landfall, while it turned to the west-northwest. It approached Santa Catalina Islandin the Channel Islands and dissipated. There is some uncertainty to this reconstructed path.

Aha! An El Niño season, though in this case it was receding. Weatherbell.com has been saying since spring, based on research we have done on the Southern Oscilllation Index the previous winter, that we expect an El Niño to develop — something that is being echoed now by modeling almost six months after our initial forecast. Here is the latest blend of modeling from the International Research Institute:

This is also a big deal for the upcoming winter, as I believe this is a “modoki”-type event that leads to colder, snowier winters, such as 2002-2003, 2006-2007, 2009-2010, and 2014-2015. But back to the threat of a tropical cyclone hitting southern California. Other years during which tropical cyclones impacted Southern California are 1963, 1965, 1972, 1976, and 1997. What do these years share in common? El Niño!

Right off the bat, we have numerous samples featuring a developing El Niño. So if one does fully develop this year, it fits the pattern.

However, there is an extra twist this go-around. The water is very warm near southern California, even as it has cooled all around it.

An objective look at sea surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific reveals that the area of very warm water is quite narrow, but it’s there nonetheless. The water surrounding it in much of the eastern Pacific is cool.

Let’s describe how a hurricane could happen. It would have to be quite late in the season, likely after Sept. 15, with a storm that intensifies and gets pulled rapidly north over the area of very warm water. The remaining water, though cooler than normal, is still warm enough to sustain a storm. The key would be a strong upper-level trough that can catch the storm and swing it in from the south-southwest. There is nothing in nature that says this can’t happen naturally. If it can happen in 1858, why not now, especially given all the previous examples of developing El Niños around the same time of year?

The article is quite correct to point out this year’s enhanced chance of a landfalling hurricane relative to average. However, it ignores the fact that, simply by looking at past events, if there is a storm this year, it would fit the pattern. That the water is very warm near the coast ups the ante, but it’s not a sign of it being caused by a warmer climate anymore than all the cooler water around it is a sign of a cooler climate. It is nature doing what nature does.

While I have you here, let me mention Tampa and my worry there. Tampa has not had a major hurricane since 1921. It is very hard for Tampa to be hit with a major hurricane. What is needed is a fast-moving storm coming from the southwest later in the season (similar to San Diego), as the October 1921 storm did.

Gladys was a weaker storm in 1968, an El Niño season.

My point is there is a way both cities can be hit. The San Diego cases all have some kind of El Niño around. Combine that with the Atlantic seasons in each case being similar to this year’s, and the possibility is there. But these events are not something that should be attributed to anything beyond natural setups that can repeat themselves.

While we all think of Tampa as a place that gets hit, the fact is like San Diego, a direct strike is almost like threading a needle. But there are times when nature is more favorable to that scenario, and this year might be one of them. Granted, storms sideswipe Tampa more often, but what is being talked about here are rare events that have happened before and during years like this one. Perhaps we should be on the lookout since there is natural precedent.


Joe Bastardi, a pioneer in extreme weather and long-range forecasting, is a contributor to The Patriot Post on environmental issues. He is the author of “The Climate Chronicles: Inconvenient Revelations You Won’t Hear From Al Gore — and Others.”

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