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‘Potentially catastrophic’ hurricane Patricia bears down on Mexico

Yesterday, it was a tropical storm. Today, it’s breaking records.


 
epa04990417 A handout picture released by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on 23 October 2015 shows a rainbow colored image of Hurricane Patricia as it approaches the coastline of Mexico from the Eastern Pacific. Hurrican Patricia has reached Category 5, the highest, and was heading towards southwest Mexico.The centre of the storm was around 320 km south-southwest of the city of Manzanillo at 0300 GMT, said the National Weather Centre in the United States. Patricia has windspeeds of up to 260 kilometres per hour.The storm, moving north-northwest at 17 kilometres per hour was predicted to make landfall overnight. The Mexican government declared a state of emergency in 56 localities in coastal areas.  (NOAA/EPA)

(NOAA/EPA)

It’s a bit odd learning that a hurricane bears one’s first name. Yesterday, when I saw the first announcements that hurricane Patricia was brewing off the west coast of Mexico, I joked that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had acknowledged my power and might. That tongue-in-cheek attitude vanished upon reading more about this behemoth.

It is a monster: a Category 5 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 325 kh/h (and higher gusts). NOAA’s National Hurricane Center calls it “the strongest eastern north Pacific hurricane on record.” That has been strengthened to the strongest ever in the Western Hemisphere. The most recent comparable storm is typhoon Haiyan, which destroyed swathes of the Philippines in 2013, killing some 6,300.

The U.S. agency warns that Patricia is heading for “potentially catastrophic landfall in southwestern Mexico later today.” The pressure at its centre is the lowest recorded of any such storm in three decades. That means it will land hard. In addition to the dangerous winds, Patricia is expected to bring intense flooding and storm surge.

Right now, the state of Jalisco appears to be where it will touch land, with the tourist resort of Puerto Vallarta as its main target. The hurricane is expected to hit on Friday afternoon or evening. The airport closed on Friday morning, beachfront hotels are evacuating tourists, and Mexican officials are urging everyone to get to prepared shelters. It could be the worst storm to hit the nation in half a century, according to Mexico’s president. (An estimated 2,000 Canadians are in the areas affected, CBC reports. Foreign Affairs urges them to contact the embassy if they require help.)

UPDATE: As of 4 p.m. EDT on Friday, NOAA forecast that it would hit land within hours and then rapidly move inland:

At 100 PM CDT (1800 UTC), the center of Hurricane Patricia was
located near latitude 18.2 North, longitude 105.3 West. Patricia is
now moving toward the north near 12 mph (19 km/h).  A turn toward
the north-northeast and a faster forward motion are expected this
afternoon, with this motion continuing tonight and Saturday.  On
the forecast track, the center of Patricia should cross the coast in
the hurricane warning area during the next several hours.  After
landfall, the center of Patricia is expected to move quickly
north-northeastward across western and northern Mexico.

 

Mexico often has to contend with tropical storms developing in the warm waters off both its western and eastern coasts. Because of the presence of El Niño, the NOAA forecast an “above-normal” storm season in the east Pacific. As it explained, “El Niño decreases the vertical wind shear over the eastern tropical Pacific, which favours more and stronger tropical storms and hurricanes. El Niño is already affecting the wind and rainfall patterns across the equatorial and subtropical Pacific Ocean.” It predicted seven to 12 hurricanes with up to eight major storms. Patricia is the 13th such hurricane of the season.

What makes this storm so alarming is the explosive speed at which it gained strength. On Thursday morning, it was a typical tropical storm that might strengthen into a Category 1 hurricane. Around 12 hours later, it was turning into a Category 5. “This is really, really, really strong,” World Meteorological Organization spokeswoman Clare Nullis said. The hurricane’s winds are strong enough “to get a plane in the air and keep it flying.”

Weather services around the world are warning of its power, and hope the warnings come in time.


 

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