History is being made tonight in the Northeast Pacific as Hurricane Patricia
churns about 200 miles off the coast of Mexico, south-southwest of Manzanillo. With its 11 pm EDT Thursday advisory
, the National Hurricane Center upgraded Patricia to Category 5, with top sustained winds of 160 mph and a central pressure of 924 millibars. Hurricane warnings are now in effect for the coast from San Blas to Punta San Telmo, including Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo, with a hurricane watch and tropical storm warning eastward to Lazaro Cardenas. Update:
Late Thursday night, an Air Force Hurricane Hunter flight captured some of the most extreme observations
ever recorded in 70 years of reconnaissance activity. Based on flight-level winds of 179 knots (206 mph), NHC upgraded Patricia's strength at 12:30 am EDT Friday to 185 mph. The estimated surface pressure of 892 mb is the lowest on record for the Northeast Pacific, and it ranks #3 for the entire Western Hemisphere behind only Wilma
(882 mb, on October 19, 2005) and Gilbert
(888 mb, on September 13, 1988). A surface reading of 892 mb was recorded at Key West during the Labor Day hurricane
(September 2, 1935). Figure 1.
Satellite image of Hurricane Patricia at 0347Z Friday, October 23, 2015 (11:47 pm EDT Thursday).Figure 2.
Visible satellite image of Hurricane Patricia close to nightfall, at 2345Z (7:45 pm EDT) Thursday, October 22. 2015. Image credit: NOAA and CIMMS/SSEC/University of Wisconsin.Figure 3.
Enhanced infrared satellite image of Hurricane Patricia from near sunset on Thursday, October 22. 2015. Image credit: CIMMS/SSEC/University of Wisconsin, courtesy Stu Ostro.
Satellite imagery of Patricia late Thursday was stunning, as the hurricane carved out a very symmetric core of intensifying convection (showers and thunderstorms) with a small eye at its center. Cloud-top temperatures within the convection are as cold as -130°F, a sign of extremely powerful updrafts. Patricia’s rate of strengthening since Wednesday has been truly remarkable. In a mere 36 hours, Patricia’s official NHC rating went from minimal tropical storm (40 mph) to Category 5 hurricane--among the most rapid intensification rates one might expect in a hurricane anywhere. NHC’s advisory on Thursday night placed Patricia in the elite group
of 15 Northeast Pacific hurricanes that have reached Category 5 strength since 1959. One of those--an unnamed storm
that struck near Manzanillo in 1959--is expected to be downgraded to Category 4 later this year after a reanalysis of data is confirmed. It remains the deadliest Northeast Pacific hurricane to date, resulting in an estimated 1800 direct and indirect fatalities.Figure 4.
The eye of Hurricane Patricia as seen by the navigator on NOAA hurricane hunter aircraft N43RF on Thursday afternoon, October 22, 2015. At the time, Patricia was a Category 4 storm with 130 mph winds. Image credit: NOAA Hurricane Hunters Facebook Page.
Unfortunately, Patricia is destined to fall in an even smaller group of Category 5s that take aim at Mexico’s Pacific coastline. Most of the intense hurricanes in the Northeast Pacific move along west-northwest tracks that keep them well offshore of Mexico. Apart from the 1959 storm, only two Cat 5s in the Northeast Pacific database have arced northeastward into Mexico: 2009’s Hurricane Rick
, which weakened to a tropical storm well before making landfall, and 2002’s Hurricane Kenna
, the closest analogue by far to Patricia. Kenna strengthened as it recurved, then weakened only slightly before it plowed into the coast near San Blas as a Category 4 storm. Causing at least four deaths and inflicting around $100 million US in damage, Kenna struck with winds of 140 mph, which made it the second-strongest Pacific storm to strike Mexico in modern records. The forecast for Patricia
Hurricanes rarely maintain Category 5 status for more than 24 hours, but Patricia has a very good shot at remaining a formidable storm right up to landfall. Along the expected path, sea-surface temperatures are at near-record warm levels (about 30.5°C, or 87°F), and there is enough deep oceanic heat so that even violent Category 5 winds are unlikely to stir up enough cooler water to disrupt the storm (see Figure 5 below). Vertical wind shear has increased to moderate levels (10 - 20 knots), and the shear is predicted to continue increasing on Friday, as Patricia moves into a zone of stronger upper-level southwesterlies that will curve the storm to the right. These winds may also push drier air into the hurricane’s core, which could cause some disruption. Intense hurricanes also tend to go through eyewall replacement cycles
after a day or two at peak strength, so it’s quite possible that such a cycle will occur before landfall, which could cut down Patricia’s strength slightly. Even with all these factors taken into account, it seems very probable that Patricia will reach land as at least a Category 4; the NHC’s official forecast updated at 12:30 am EDT Friday brings Patricia onshore as a Category 5.Figure 5.
Oceanic heat content along the general expected path of Hurricane Patricia. Values above 50 kilojoules per square centimeter (yellow) indicate deep warm water, reducing the odds that the strong winds of an intense hurricane will churn up cooler water that might disrupt it. Image credit: RAMMB/CIRA/Colorado State University
Forecast models did an excellent job of predicting Patricia’s rapid strengthening, and they are in close agreement on the general track over the next several days: a smooth, sharp turn toward the northeast on Friday, followed by rapid motion into the Mexican coast late Friday or early Saturday. This turn has already begun, as Patricia is now moving toward the north-northwest. The exact timing and sharpness of the turn will determine where Patricia makes landfall; by Friday, we should have a more precise sense of the landfall location, which will most likely be somewhere between Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo. For now, everyone in the hurricane watch area--and especially the warning area--should be extremely prudent and take this storm very seriously. A direct hit on Puerto Vallarta is a possibility, though that outcome is toward the left edge of the various model solutions. Although no hurricanes of this intensity have struck near Puerto Vallarta in modern times, Kenna (which made landfall about 60 miles to the north) wreaked considerable damage
on the Puerto Vallarta area, largely from storm surge. If Patricia strikes between Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo, it would put the city of Manzanillo and the surrounding bay at considerable risk of storm surge.
Along with the immediate coastal threats of storm surge and extreme wind, Patricia will likely produce torrential rain with the risk of life-threatening floods in the mountains and hills to the north and northeast of its path, including parts of Mexican states of Jalisco, Colima, Michoacan and Guerrero. By late in the weekend, Patricia will be racing across southern Texas, exacerbating what may be a very serious flood threat across parts of the state. See our roundup from this afternoon
for more on this multi-pronged heavy rain episode over Texas.
Jeff Masters will be filing our next update on Patricia on Friday morning.