Hurricane Patricia’s rapid growth mystifies

Recently, the citizens of Mexico unexpectedly found themselves in the direct path of Hurricane Patricia, which is being lauded as the most intense tropical cyclone even recorded in the Western Hemisphere. Meteorologists first acknowledged Patricia as a tropical depression, but it quickly grew from a tropic storm to a Category 5 hurricane within the span of 24 hours. Hurricanes can be amazingly powerful and destructive forces of nature, and they can grow at terrifying and unpredictable rates.

On Oct. 23, Patricia made landfall and luckily was not nearly as destructive as initially expected. Still, its rapid growth has mystified meteorologists. Despite having a fundamental understanding of how hurricanes form, they cannot fully explain Patricia’s growth.

Hurricanes generally form over warm ocean waters near the equator because the warm, moist air rises upward from the surface. Simultaneously, the space left void by the rising air is filled with the surrounding cooler air. The warm moist air forms into clouds, generating a powerful machine-like system that continues to grow as the wind spins and the storm feeds on warm air.

Storms formed north of the equator spin counterclockwise while those that form south of the equator spin clockwise. The center of the hurricane, commonly known as the eye, forms as the storm system begins to pick up speed.

A Category 5 hurricane like Patricia produces wind speeds up to and over 155 mph, though Patricia earned the title of the strongest Pacific wind system ever observed, with wind speeds of 200 mph.

Meteorologists described Patricia’s development into a Category 5 hurricane as a result of a perfect environment for rapid intensification. During its formation, there was a consistent cycle of heat exchange and a large drop in pressure, optimal conditions for hurricane formation.

Wind shear, also known as a wind gradient, results from quickly changing speeds and direction of wind and usually acts as a brake to slow the growth of the hurricane. Unfortunately, wind shear was very weak during Patricia’s formation, and this largely contributed to its rapid growth.

Luckily, the strength of the storm subsided, and damage was not as serious as initially expected. Still, Hurricane Patricia will continue to be regarded as a very interesting phenomenon and a dangerous natural disaster by meteorologists and citizens alike.