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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

The Monster Hurricane Patricia Seen From Space

By Phil Plait

Friday afternoon, the eye of the incredibly powerful Hurricane Patricia reached Mexico’s west coast.

The sheer strength of this hurricane is difficult to exaggerate, and even harder to grasp. It went from the weakest Category 1 to a Category 5 in a single day, intensifying to become the strongest hurricane ever seen in the western hemisphere.

Update, Oct. 24, 2015, at 15:15 UTC: As expected, once it hit landfall, Patricia rapidly lost strength and was downgraded to a tropical storm. However it is still a dangerous system and will continue to drop a lot of rain on Mexico and Texas over the next few days.

The image above was taken by the GOES-East satellite on Oct. 23, 2015, at 14:45 UTC, and shows the hurricane stretching out for more than 2,000 km.

This image, taken about three hours later by NASA’s Terra satellite, shows how small and intense the eye had become:

Top speeds in the hurricane have been charted at over 400 kph—that’s well into tornado range. Sustained winds are slower, but still well over 300 kph, and that’s over a far, far larger area than a tornado. Although Patricia is expected to weaken rapidly once it’s over land, it packs a phenomenal punch, and is likely to dump more than 30 cm (1 foot) of rain in some areas. As it breaks up, it will still inundate parts of Texas, too.

It intensified so quickly due to many reasons. Hurricanes get their energy from warm water, which evaporates and powers the hurricane’s winds. The water in the east Pacific is far warmer than usual, and the strengthening El Niño only made it worse.

Here is a video of the hurricane made from GOES-West satellite images:

At the end of the video you can see a whole bunch of huge thunderstorms popping up in the feeder bands (the spiral arms) of the hurricane; these add tremendous energy to the system.

As my Slate colleague Eric Holthaus points out, the strength of this hurricane is almost certainly due in some ways to climate change. It’s hard to pin any one thing on that, but he makes a very strong circumstantial case for it. Recent studies show that our warming planet tends to mean fewer hurricanes (strong upper level winds can shear the tops of hurricanes, cutting off their strength in a Samson-like manner), but ones that get strong get even stronger due to warmer conditions. That leads to monsters like Patricia and 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan.

My friend and colleague Chris Mooney also outlines this case in an article for the Washington Post. To make an analogy, it’s like playing craps with loaded dice. You may not know which exact 12 roll is due to the dice being ever-so-slightly weighted, but over time, statistically, you’ll see more of them than you’d expect from random chance.

The house always wins. And the house is getting warmer. Is Patricia strong due to global warming? Maybe. Either way, deniers gonna deny, but this is a glimpse of our future, now.

I’ll leave you for now with this video taken from the International Space Station as it passed over Patricia at about 16:00 UTC on Oct. 23. This storm is immense.

Correction, Oct. 24, 2015: I originally wrote that the astronauts on ISS took that last video. However, Ben Honey, a NASA flight controller, told me it's from a remote camera on ISS that's controlled by someone at the Communications RF Onboard Networks Utilization Specialist (CRONUS) position at Flight Control in Houston.  

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