Picture This: Biggest hurricane in the West | Science News for Students

Picture This: Biggest hurricane in the West

By any yardstick, it’s the most powerful cyclone on record
Oct 23, 2015 — 6:01 pm EST
Hurricane Patricia

Hurricane Patricia’s category-5 monster winds are the fastest ever seen in a tropical cyclone.

NOAA

On Friday, October 23, Hurricane Patricia was barreling into western Mexico. Hours before it hit, scientists clocked the monster storm as having maximum sustained wind speeds of 325 kilometers per hour (200 miles per hour). That's the strongest ever seen in the Western Hemisphere, reports the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Fla.

The monster storm topped the peak wind speed seen with Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. That storm’s winds reached 315 kph. An El Niño can help build intense storm seasons throughout the northern Pacific Ocean. Scientists suspect that this year’s El Niño, one of the strongest ever, may have helped fuel Patricia’s winds.

Wind speeds are not, however, the only way to rank a hurricane’s intensity. Another gauge is its minimum atmospheric pressure. And Hurricane Patricia now holds that record too. Hours before landfall, its pressure plummeted to 879 millibars (25.96 inches of mercury).

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

El Niño   Extended periods when the surface water around the equator in the eastern and central Pacific warms. Scientists declare the arrival of an El Niño when that water warms by at least 0.4 degree Celsius (0.72 degree Fahrenheit) above average for five or more months in a row. El Niños can bring heavy rainfall and flooding to the West Coast of South America. Meanwhile, Australia and Southeast Asia may face a drought and high risk of wildfires. In North America, scientists have linked the arrival of El Niños to unusual weather events — including ice storms, droughts and mudslides.

hurricane  A tropical cyclone that occurs in the Atlantic Ocean and has winds of 119 kilometers (74 miles) per hour or greater. When such a storm occurs in the Pacific Ocean, people refer to it as a typhoon.

typhoon  A tropical cyclone that occurs in the Pacific or Indian oceans and has winds of 119 kilometers (74 miles) per hour or greater. In the Atlantic Ocean, such storms are referred to as hurricanes.

NGSS: 

  • MS-ESS2-5
  • HS-ESS2-4

Further Reading

T. Sumner. “New El Niño coming on strong.” Science News for Students. August 11, 2015.

T. Sumner. “Pacific hurricanes to strengthen as Earth warms.” Science News for Students. June 25, 2015.

B. Brookshire. “Scientists Say: Hurricane or typhoon?Science News for Students. July 20, 2015.

S. Ornes. “Explainer: El Niño and La Niña.” Science News for Students. February 13, 2013.

S. Ornes. “Climate’s troublesome kids.Science News for Students. January 30, 2013.