While the Atlantic Hurricane Season continues to be slow, with a struggling Tropical Storm Cristobal recurving away from the U.S. during the next several days, the Eastern Pacific has turned into an assembly line for giant storms. The latest, Hurricane Marie, attained the rare Category 5 status on Sunday when estimated maximum sustained surface winds clocked in at 160 miles per hour.
Viewed from space, the storm has been downright mesmerizing (as the satellite animation from Monday shows), and without the guilt that comes from knowing it is causing death and destruction — it’s what meteorologists call a “fish storm,” since it’s spending its life out at sea west of Mexico without making landfall anywhere. It will, however, drive dangerously high waves toward the southern California and western Mexican coast.
Hurricane Marie has had plenty of company so far this year — as the Eastern Pacific has spawned three other Category 4 hurricanes, and one Category 3 storm. In total, that means the eastern Pacific has already seen five “major” hurricanes, which are storms classified as Category 3 or stronger.
Meanwhile, the Atlantic Ocean has seen just three named storms, none of which have reached “major” hurricane status. One of these storms, Hurricane Arthur, made landfall in North Carolina in early July. The U.S. has not been hit by a Category 3 or stronger storm since Hurricane Wilma in 2005, which is a record long major hurricane drought that is largely due to luck.
So what’s going on?
In a typical hurricane season, the eastern Pacific sees 15 named storms, eight of which are hurricanes, with four major hurricanes.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had forecast a near to above average eastern Pacific hurricane season, with three to six major hurricanes.
Part of the story lies in sea surface temperatures, while a related part of the puzzle is in the atmosphere. The Eastern Pacific has waters that are warmer than average for this time of year, as the region teeters on the brink of an El Niño event. The Atlantic Basin, by and large, has near average ocean temperatures. The hotter water in the Pacific encourages air to rise above it, and provides added moisture and hence energy for storms to form.
The rising air above the Pacific is helping to encourage air to sink downstream, above the Atlantic, which suppresses storm formation. In addition, a lot of dry air has blown across the ocean from the Sahara Desert, which also contributes to an unfriendly environment for storms. El Niño years tend to be years with fewer Atlantic storms, partly because of the sea surface temperature configuration and because there tends to be higher winds above the Atlantic during such years, which can snuff out developing storms.
Like many of the eastern Pacific storms so far this year, Hurricane Marie intensified quite rapidly, as if Mother Nature hit the gas pedal and refused to let go.
According to Mother Jones, the strongest storm ever recorded in the eastern Pacific was Hurricane Linda in 1997, which had a minimum central pressure of 902 millibars and maximum sustained winds of about 185 miles per hour.
With plenty of warm water in place (and potentially getting warmer), and the peak of the hurricane season upon us, perhaps a storm will spin up that equals or rivals that storm?
Other records have already fallen in that region. First, Hurricane Amanda — the first storm of the young season — exploded to high-end Category 4 status in late May. Then, just two weeks later, Hurricane Cristina, which also formed off the west coast of Mexico, rapidly intensified in mid-June, winding up as a high-end Category 4 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Scale.
In the history of hurricane records for that region, there had never been two Category 4 or stronger hurricanes in any season prior to July 1, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida. Hurricane Amanda had also set another milestone when it became the strongest May hurricane on record for that ocean basin. Hurricane Marie was the earliest fifth Category 4 storm on record. Reliable records for this region go back to 1966.