Hurricane Patricia, the umpteenth tropical cyclone to form in the Pacific Ocean so far this year, exploded into a ferocious category four hurricane this afternoon with winds of 130 MPH. The “extremely dangerous” hurricane could strengthen even further before making landfall on Mexico’s west coast on Friday evening.
Patricia is an impressive tropical cyclone that’s blown past intensity forecasts during its short life. The storm only grew into a tropical depression on Tuesday morning, becoming a named tropical storm that afternoon. Hard as it is to believe, the storm only achieved hurricane status at 5:00 AM EDT today. In the 9 hours since the National Hurricane Center declared Patricia a hurricane, the storm has explosively strengthened from a category one to a category four.
Original forecasts on Tuesday and early Wednesday only showed Patricia reaching category two status by landfall on Friday, but the hurricane’s incredible strengthening streak puts many more lives at risk and only demands faster preparation from those in the path of the storm.
Unsurprisingly, Patricia has a classic appearance on satellite imagery this afternoon, coming close to resembling the hurricane symbol we use on weather maps (if you squint a little bit):
It’s a mean-looking storm, and it’s all the more terrifying when you realize that it’s heading toward populated areas of Mexico.
While many areas will experience damaging winds, heavy rain, dangerous waves, and a storm surge, exactly where Hurricane Patricia makes landfall will determine which communities are the hardest hit due to the storm’s relatively small field of very intense winds. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where landfall will occur, which is why the cone of uncertainty is so important.
The cone of uncertainty is the historical track error in forecasts issued by the National Hurricane Center. The center of a storm typically stays within the cone 66% of the time. There are numerous coastal communities in and around the cone of uncertainty, including Manzanillo (pop. 110k), Puerto Vallarta (pop. 200k), and smaller communities like San Patricio and Pérula, the latter of which is extremely vulnerable as it’s nestled in a southward-facing cove-like feature along the coast, which could easily catch and amplify a storm surge.
Anyone who lives in or is visiting any of the areas in or around the cone needs to pay close attention to this storm and evacuate if told to do so by local authorities.
Once Patricia makes landfall and starts chugging inland, flooding will become its greatest risk. Widespread heavy rain will be exacerbated by hilly terrain as strong winds ride up the hills and wring out every bit of moisture streaming ashore. Some areas could see ten or more inches of rain from this system, which could lead to life-threatening flash flooding in many locations.
If you’re in the region right now, make sure you know your area’s risk for flooding, both from storm surge (wind pushing seawater inland) and rainfall, paying close attention to rivers, streams, and hilly/mountainous terrain where mud- and landslides become a significant risk.
Hurricane Patricia further helps cement this year’s place as the most intense tropical cyclone season ever recorded in the Northern Hemisphere. Hurricane researcher Philip Klotzbach says that Patricia is the 22nd category four or category five hurricane we’ve seen in the Northern Hemisphere so far this year, which is an all-time record. The previous record-high number of category four or category five cyclones in this hemisphere in one calendar year was 18, a tie held by 1998 and 2004.