Hurricane Patricia breaks records and threatens Mexico and Texas

In only 24 hours, the strongest hurricane on record was born. Hurricane Patricia, which dumped devastating rains over Central Mexico and blasted 200 mile-per-hour sustained winds Friday evening and Saturday morning, had a central pressure two millibars lower than Hurricane Wilma, the previous record holder. Wilma struck the Yucatan Peninsula and moved on to the Texas coast during the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season in the same oceanic conditions that brought Rita and Katrina. The best that Texas meteorologists could say of Patricia is thank goodness it was in the Pacific, and made landfall in a relatively rural area.


As the worst of Patricia struck an area near Cuixmala and moved inland over the weekend, the storm was expected to present catastrophic conditions to a major swath of the Pacific Mexican coast. Communities near the ocean and just inland were susceptible to a tremendous flash flooding threat from a projected downpour of 10 to 12 inches of rain, widespread power outages and downed trees. Rainfall in the mountains was expected to collect in valleys and rush downhill to low-lying areas, swelling waterways further.

weatherHowever, CNN reports that Mexico dodged a bullet. Tourists and poor communities were evacuated well ahead of the storm, and in spite of the threat of devastation, there were no reported deaths. When Patricia made landfall, the storm rapidly weakened as it crossed the Sierra Madre, and meteorologists downgraded its status to a low pressure system with wind speeds averaging 35 miles per hour. Storms this strong usually bring down communication infrastructure that must be rebuilt, said David Paul, KHOU-11 Chief Meteorologist.

rainfall totals

Source: The Weather Channel

Texas didn’t see hurricane conditions, but residents throughout the state received heavy rainfall. As the storm crossed the mountains and its energy was pushed further up into the atmosphere, it carried with it weekend rainfall totals averaging 12 inches for the state. West and Central Texas endured flooding conditions Friday morning and areas from Victoria to San Antonio and further north into Austin, Waco and Dallas witnessed widespread heavy rainfall, all caused by the disturbance of Patricia’s forward march.


By the time the storm reached the U.S., its power was significantly weakened. For Houston, Patricia meant flash flooding conditions. The city saw more than seven inches of rain over the rest of the weekend. Communities along the coast experienced strong, gale-force winds and an increase in coastal flooding threat.

“The major threats are flooding,” Paul said. “Because it will still have a tremendous amount of vorticity or twist, there will be a tornado threat that will last through Sunday and into early Monday.”

With a storm this powerful, the best advice is to get out of the way. Upwards of 50,000 people in Mexico evacuated, and still more were affected by dangerous conditions.

Scientifically speaking, Patricia was “a beauty,” Paul said. It had a strong, well-defined eyewall and formed in ideal conditions.


“We’re in an El Niño year, and it’s the strongest ever measured,” Paul said. “The sea surface temperatures are above normal, so the storm has plenty of warm water (to fuel it). What has allowed Patricia to become so strong is a lack of wind shear. The upper-level winds were perfect for tropical storm development. No wind shear allows it to ‘bomb out.’ That’s a term we use to mean strengthening rapidly. It went from 65 mile-an-hour winds to a 160-mile-an-hour Category 5 hurricane in 24 hours!”

Imagine poking your head out of an Indy 500 race car shooting down the track. That’s what it’s like to feel sustained winds of 200 mph. Structures in its path, even those on foundations are all likely to have been flattened.


Comparing historical data from Galveston, meteorologists believe the hurricane that laid ruin to the Texas coast in 1900 was probably a Category 4. Winds reached between 140 and 145 miles an hour in that storm, and Hurricane Katrina topped out at 175 mph. At 200 mph, Patricia seems to defy the five-category Saffir—Simpson Scale with its outstanding wind speed, and even Paul admits this storm may require its own category, but that doesn’t mean it’s the strongest that could ever have occurred.

 “We don’t have a special section to put it in, but we’ve only been measuring these hurricanes since about the 1970s,” Paul said. “There may have been stronger ones.”

That said, there are some other distinctions to make. The high winds only occur at the eyewall, diminishing further out. And Paul hesitated to use the storm’s historical strength as evidence of any significant global trends.

“I don’t see that. El Niño may be one of the factors, the warming of the Pacific waters a little above normal,” Paul said. “I just see this as a storm that got in the right place at the right time with the upper-level winds.”


So should Americans be worried about hurricanes of Patricia’s magnitude forming in the Atlantic this season? Paul had an answer for that, too.

“We’re nearing the end of the season, but it doesn’t end until November 31. If you live on the coast, that’s the price. The price you pay is to be prepared for hurricanes to come along every once in a while.”

Residents of Texas and Mexico alike are urged to monitor the weather all weekend long using whatever resources are available. KHOU-11 will keep an eye on the storm 24/7 and will provide updates on its progress on Facebook, Twitter and on the Web.

Do not drive in flash flood conditions. If you must, take extreme caution. Remember to turn around, don’t drown. Get to higher ground.

When the storm has passed, learn more about how the weather is broadcast at the Houston Museum of Natural Science at the KHOU-11 Do the Weather with Chita Johnson exhibit.

Stay safe!

Which natural disaster are YOU? Nature Unleashed brings the perfect storm to HMNS

Discover the most incredible, violent, stunning events of the natural world in Nature Unleashed: Inside Natural Disasters, opening at HMNS on Friday, May 23. From violent tremors to massive explosions, from the eye of the storm to funnel clouds, Nature Unleashed takes you inside natural disasters for a perspective like you’ve never had before.

tornadoAnd now (via a super-unscientific method), you can find out which natural disaster fits you best! Just pick your favorite title below:

What’s the title of your natural disaster autobiography?

  1. Shaken, Never Stirred: How I Moved the World
  2. My Awesomeness Grants More Awesomeness (M.A.G.M.A)
  3. Topical Depression: Spiraling Out of Control
  4. Sharknado Ain’t Got Nothin’ on Me

Scroll down to find out your natural disaster.

If you answered 1, then you’re an earthquake!
If you answered 2, then you’re a volcano!
If you answered 3, then you’re a hurricane!
If you answered 4, then you’re a tornado!

Here’s what your natural disaster says about you:

You are the constant rearranger. Never content to leave things be for too long, eventually you’ve just gotta shake it up! You carry the weight of the world on your shoulders but try to hide it most of the time: stealth is your middle name. People may not notice you until you reach your breaking point – but then no one can ignore you!

Must-see destination: Mariana Trench
Perfect career: Fracking
Best friends: Terra “The Tectonic Plate” Firma and Gio Thur-Mal

You’re the rock of the group — until you’re not. Most of the time, you’re as stable as can be. Cool and collected, taking it all in. But every so often something sets you off and you EXPLODE. No one can hide from you when that fiery temper comes out. People worship and revile you all over the world for your destructive and rejuvenating capabilities.

Must-see destination:  Pompeii
Favorite movie: Joe vs. the Volcano
Favorite pastime: Making Hawaii

You never stay in one place for too long, but you sure do make an impression — or, rather, depression (of the air) wherever you go. You are very strong, but don’t know the extent of your strength. You absolutely love media attention, but your 15 minutes are never really enough. So you make sure to come around at regular intervals so that no one can forget about you.

Must-see destination: Florida
Favorite drink: Cyclone
Favorite activity: Changing your name

You’re still mad Dorothy got the credit for dropping a house on the Wicked Witch of the West. You tend to have short bursts of activity, but that doesn’t mean you don’t put your all into it. You’re generally pretty clumsy, and tend to make a mess wherever you go.

Must-see destination: Oz
Favorite game: Twister
Favorite movie: Sharknado

Now that you’ve been unscientifically diagnosed as the force of nature you are, come learn about the real science behind all of these natural disasters at Nature Unleashed: Inside Natural Disasters.

Feel the ground shake during an earthquake, witness the fury of an erupting volcano, or get swept away by a hurricane or tornado. This exhibit is full of discoveries just waiting to happen!

Get your tickets today! Nature Unleashed: Inside Natural Disasters opens at HMNS May 23.  

Ike-ster…what a mess of things you made!

bye bye ike.
Creative Commons License photo credit: tiny white lights

Thus far, my previous blogs have been exploiting some of my old camp journals that are just collecting dust at home.  I’m going to be a bit radical this week and write about a recent topic rather than an event that occurred a decade or two ago.  Today’s blog involves some brief anecdotes I jotted down regarding the recent Hurricane that struck our beloved Houston early in the morning (dark) on 13 September 2008. 

When friends and relatives asked me how it went post-hurricane, without power and many of the creature comforts our society has grown so used to, I replied, “it feels balmy and tranquil, much like my old study site in Amazonia” (which, incidentally, will be the focus of next month’s entry).  A long-time friend of mine named John described the events at his house as ‘Hurrication,’ where the teens were forced to interact with the rest of the family through playing board games, consuming massive quantities of perishable food during marathon cookouts, and everyone generally having a great time despite circumstances.  With no power, roads blocked by downed trees and electrical lines, and lines to purchase gasoline not worth the struggle, it was a great time to deflate and smell what remained of the flowers.  My family and I went on many walks to cool off since the outside was overall cooler than the inside the house.  During this time we made various observations of how the storm affected the local urban wildlife, which I will attempt to recount below.

– Vegetation was mangled, or completely removed in many cases.  Huge pine trees with a diameter exceeding a yard were snapped clean off at the base like a toothpick.  The animals which depended on such plant communities to thrive had their lives thrown into complete chaos, through their habitat being mangled, or completely removed. 

Blue Jay 13
Creative Commons License photo credit:

– It had been a couple of years since we had seen any Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) in our yard, yet several individuals passed through after the storm, trying to stake out a new territory.  One pair even chased a large Buteo hawk into a tree in our front yard, where it rested briefly before being found and further harassed by the jays.

– We figured mosquitoes would be abundant from the rain that followed the storm, but not a one.  Most wildlife was noticeably lacking.  I was extremely disturbed at absolutely no sign of any of the four species of doves commonly found in the neighborhood, and you can guess my relief when they began to return six days after the storm.  It is very likely that many of the birds left the region well in advance of the storm.  Wildlife seems to have an internal barometric gauge.  For example, prior to the massive typhoon in south-east Asia, much of the wildlife left the coastal forest for the higher interior forest.

Creative Commons License photo credit: mandj98

– Whereas some wildlife left prior to the storm, other species stayed and were noticeably more active.  An unusually high number of Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa sp.) were all over our house gardens, perhaps trying to find new resources since their former founts were now gone.  Similarly, displaced Fox Squirrels (Sciurus niger) were actively scurrying about in search of a new dwelling in light of the huge piles of fallen trees and limbs.

– A Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta) was found dead on the road on the corner of Haddon and Morse.  These aquatic turtles are not native to this region, but introduced through the pet trade.  The fact that it was at least a mile or two from Buffalo Bayou was amazing.  All the rain and mild flooding that followed the tail end of the storm may have transported this turtle from the bayou to the suburbs, where it sadly met its death.  We knew it was a young turtle, as the carapace (upper shell) was only 12.5 cm (5 inches) in diameter.

– Another casualty from the storm involved a flock of approximately 20 House Sparrows (Passer domesticus).  These were all over the sidewalk of a small alley by a Marble Slab ice cream shop in a strip shopping center near our house.  Perhaps they had taken cover in the only thing they were able to find once the storm got really rough, where they sadly met their death.  Like the turtle mentioned above, these non-migratory (i.e., annual resident) birds were also introduced to the U.S.

Without a doubt, for me personally, the most unfortunate aspect of Ike’s wrath was the devastation it did to various reserves that are crucial to migrating Neotropical songbirds.  High Island, Bolivar Peninsula, Sabine Woods and Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge are only a few of these sites that were hit really hard.  However, with time and effort by loyal volunteers, these refuges will again be hotspots for Neotropical avian migrants passing through our beloved state of Texas.

-D.B., 13 October 2008
(1 month after Ike hit)

Science Doesn’t Sleep (9.11.08) Hurricane Ike Edition

Released to Public: Super Typhoon Cimaron Image by Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team, Goddard Space Flight Center (NASA)
Creative Commons License photo credit:

And neither will any of us in the Houston-Galveston area this weekend, as Hurricane Ike barrels in from the Gulf.

If you haven’t already, it’s time to consider whether you need to get out of Dodge – but please – let the people in mandatory evacuation zones get out first.

This is a high-tech hurricane – Ike’s got a Twitter feed. You can also get the latest from @chronsciguy and @HoustonChron.

And, since there are other things happening in the world of science…

The world survived the initial tests – so now the question is, will CERN discover The God Particle?

Astronomers observed a gamma ray burst that was briefly so bright that it outshone the galaxy that contained it.

Maybe you really shouldn’t walk under that ladder – superstitions may have originally evolved as a survival instinct.  

It’s the like Terra Cotta Warriors – but with trees. Scientists have found fossil forests in mines that span thousands of hectares.