She was fierce. On 22nd October 2015, as night fell across the Pacific Ocean, Hurricane Patricia was braced to plough into the usually tranquil coast of West Mexico. Harbouring wind speeds of over 200mph. She has been logged as the second most intense Pacific hurricane on record, topping Marie (2014), Linda (1907) and even Rick (2009). In a week also seeing reports of China’s average temperature reaching levels too hot to work in, the question facing the science community today is this: Did climate change cause hurricane Patricia?
A forming hurricane gathers its energy from warm vapour evaporating from the ocean’s surface meaning that the higher the temperature of the water, the more energy the hurricane acquires. Hence, we expect to see more tropical storms as the earth heats up. However, assigning an exact figure to how much climate changed caused Patricia is very difficult. The biggest drawbacks to assessing the exact cause of a hurricane is a lack of data. We have neither a vast and reliable log of past hurricanes, nor a model able to simulate a world with and without excess greenhouse gas emissions.
The effects of El Nino, a natural phenomenon leading to periodic increases in temperature of the Equatorial Pacific, have to be accounted for. 2015 has been a particularly strong year for El Nino and so storms had been anticipated. Nevertheless, it is widely speculated that she would have been a less intense storm without climate change.
The more frequent occurrence of extreme weather events has long been sighted as a consequence of global warming. Luckily, Patricia struck a sparsely populated region and dissipated relatively rapidly due to the area’s mountainous terrain. Future storms may not be so forgiving.