After attaining peak winds of 200 mph early this morning, Hurricane Patricia became the strongest storm ever recorded by the National Hurricane Center. It jumped to the top of a notorious list of the western hemisphere's most vicious storms, dating back decades.
The record Patricia established spans not only hurricanes that impact western North America, but also those that impact eastern North America and the Caribbean.
The four storms which Patricia now looks down at are:
- Hurricane Allen, 1980, peak winds of 190 mph (Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico)
- Hurricane Wilma, 2005, peak winds of 185 mph (Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico)
- Hurricane Linda, 1997, peak winds of 185 mph (Northeast Pacific)
- Hurricane Gilbert, 1988, peak winds of 185 mph (Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico)
The unnamed hurricane of 1935 which struck the Florida Keys was also estimated to have peak winds of 185 mph. However, estimates of hurricane peaks winds prior to the 1970s are very uncertain as there were no weather satellites watching these storms.
Let's take a look back at each of these storms, and what defined them:
Hurricane Allen, 1980
Allen peaked in early August 1980 south of Haiti, where it killed over 200 people. In the U.S., it is most remembered for its impact in south Texas, where - as a weaker storm - it moved ashore with 125 mph winds. It produced up to 20 inches of rain and a storm surge up to 12 feet.
"Since this portion of Texas and Mexico were sparsely occupied, casualties were low, with only six deaths reported in Texas," a NOAA Web site said.
Hurricane Wilma, 2005
Almost exactly a decade ago, Wilma exploded in intensity, deepening from a tropical storm to a Category 5 hurricane over the course of a day in the western Caribbean. It set the mark for the most rapid strengthening in the tropical Atlantic on record.
Wilma made landfall in Cozumel as Category 4 hurricane. NOAA reported at least 19 people were killed from Wilma's rain and wind across the Caribbean and Mexico.
It then curled northeast to the southwest coast of the Florida peninsula where it made landfall near Naples on October 24 as a Category 3 storm. At least five deaths were directly attributed to the storm.
Hurricane Gilbert, 1988
Gilbert experienced an extraordinary period of rapid intensification on Sept. 13 near the Yucatan Peninsula.
"Gilbert crossed the northeast coast of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula on September 14th, becoming the first Category 5 hurricane in the Atlantic basin to strike land since Camille in 1969," NOAA said.
After slamming the Yucatan Peninsula, Gilbert entered the Gulf of Mexico but spared the U.S. Gulf Coast, instead drifting into northeast Mexico south of the Texas border.
"Gilbert's large size and impacts were felt over much of the Caribbean, Central America as well as portions of the United States," NOAA said. "The death toll of 318 gives an idea of the scope of Gilbert's impacts: Mexico 202, Jamaica 45, Haiti 30, Guatemala 12, Honduras 12, Dominican Republic 5, Venezuela 5, United States 3, Costa Rica 2, and Nicaragua 2."
Hurricane Linda, 1997
Prior to Patricia, Linda held the record for the strongest hurricane to form in the Northeast Pacific Ocean. But with the exception of Socorro Island where it damaged some weather instruments, the storm remained over the ocean.
It attained its maximum intensity on Sept. 12, 1997 over the ocean.
Some of the storm's moisture reached southern California, contributing to some rain. Waves generated by the storm reached 15 to 18 along the coast.
What sets Patricia apart from the others
Of all of the above monster storms, none of them struck land at peak intensity. They either weakened or, in Linda's case, stayed out to sea. Patricia is forecast to make landfall very near if not right at peak intensity.
The closest analog to Patricia in recent decades would probably be Super Typhoon Haiyan which hit a high populated portion of the Philippines when it was very close to its maximum intensity. Its death toll was over 6,000 people. The area of Mexico that Patricia is forecast to impact is not as densely populated, which should reduce the amount of destruction and numbers of human casualties.
Going back further, the 1935 Florida Keys hurricane was also near maximum intensity at landfall, and is the most intense hurricane known to ever hit the U.S. That storm, which produced a devastating 20 foot storm surge, killed 408 people, NOAA said.
The cost of U.S. hurricane damage has increased dramatically from 1900 to 2005 as a result of man-made climate change, an economic study released Monday concludes.
"The rise in losses is consistent with an influence of global warming on the number and intensity of hurricanes, an influence which may have accounted for 2% to 12% of the U.S. hurricane losses in 2005," according to the study, which was published in the peer-reviewed British journal Nature Geoscience.
In 2005 alone, climate change was likely responsible for close to $14 billion of additional damage, including devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.
The study claims that the extra costs in recent decades do not just stem from more homes, businesses and infrastructure that have been built near the coastlines. "Increases in wealth and population alone cannot account for the observed trend in hurricane losses," according to the study, whose lead author is Francisco Estrada, an economist at Mexico's National Autonomous University.
Estrada and two colleagues from Europe said that this unexplained increase in economic losses over time is consistent with a climate change signal.
One scientist who has written extensively about U.S. costs from weather damage said the study is flawed.
University of Colorado's Roger Pielke, who was not involved in the study, said it should have included hurricane damage data from just the past 10 years (2006-2015), which have been quiet for hurricane activity. He said it's "misleading" to end an analysis with the "exceptional" hurricane year of 2005.
"The period 2006-2015 has been well below average in terms of damage and U.S. hurricanes," Pielke said in an email to USA TODAY. "It is shocking that they did not include this further data."
He also said that U.S. hurricanes have not become more common or more intense, based on long-term data from 1900 to the present.
Another expert, meteorologist Steve Bowen of global reinsurance firm Aon Benfield, said "the study seems to use a reasonable approach to determine the results."
Since 1960, Bowen said, economic losses from natural disasters as a percentage of the U.S. economy have largely been flat.
"From my perspective," he added, "it is always healthy for there to be robust conversation within the scientific research community to challenge conventional thinking to better understand any trends that we're seeing."
SOUTHBRIDGE, Delaware - Down by the railroad tracks that cut through the neighborhood's south end, water is pooled on the road even on a hot August day, remnants of a downpour the day before. The road is submerged regularly here, flooding the basements of nearby residents.
Richard King grew up in the neighborhood. "When I grew up and we got a big rain, we didn't have to worry about it," he said. "The only thing that flooded was right down here at the park, and that would maybe be half the day ... but that would go down with the tide, and that was the end of that."
"When there are big rains in the middle of the night, you'll see the waters. It looks almost like a wave. It will wash up and then roll right back out," he said.
The Southbridge neighborhood is part of Delaware's largest city, Wilmington, at the northern end of the state. With a population of 72,000 people, the city sits on the Delaware River, where Brandywine Creek meets the Christina River, 65 miles from the ocean. Yet Southbridge, although far from the beaches of Delaware's bay and the Atlantic, is vulnerable to the effects of sea level rise. The neighborhood already faces chronic flooding, due to a combination of its low-lying location and aging infrastructure, and the flooding is likely to get worse as sea levels rise.
"The Christina River, which encircles all of South Wilmington, is subject to sea level rise, just like the rest of the tidal water bodies in the state," explained Susan Love, the leader of the climate and sustainability division at the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) and a former project manager for its sea level rise initiative. "Over the past 100 years, the average tide level has risen by about a foot, so that means that high tides are higher today, and the tides that affect flooding happen more often in this area. So the flooding that we're seeing is in part being exacerbated by the effects of sea level rise."
According to the DNREC's researchers, future rates of sea level rise on the Delaware coast could range from 1.6 feet to 4.9 feet by 2100, potentially submerging up to 11 percent of Delaware's land, putting roads, railroads and water wells at risk. More than 20,000 people in the state living less than 5 feet above sea level could be directly affected, about 10 percent of them in Wilmington, where many of them are socially and economically vulnerable.
Although income levels have risen in the neighborhood since 2010, about 30 percent of Southbridge households were below the poverty line in 2012. Limited economic opportunities and poor public transportation connections to the rest of the city have contributed to high unemployment in the neighborhood, which reached about 14 percent in 2012, almost double the national average. Many households don't have the option to leave the neighborhood when floodwaters rise and have less money available to rebuild after a storm or extreme weather. Flood insurance is out of reach for many of Southbridge's 1,900 residents.
"We've held flooding symposiums with [the Federal Emergency Management Agency]," said Rysheema Dixon, the chairwoman of the South Wilmington Planning Network. "We're trying to talk to them about how we can get some insurance for a lot of these residents, who have mostly had basements flooded and now have mold in their basement because it floods every time it rains."
During a light rain, road runoff and household wastewater are channeled through underground pipes to a treatment plant. When a heavy rain comes, water flows out to the Christina River through tide gates. But when the river runs high, those gates can't open, the system is overwhelmed, and water rushes back up onto the street through pipes and drains.
The floods get so bad, you're knee deep in water sometimes, said resident Shalonda Davis. "It's like you're swimming out of Southbridge."
"The buses can't get in," she added, "so people miss work." Residents have to wait until the water goes down, when the buses can make it through.
"The most dangerous time it would [flood] is when we have a full moon and a nor'easter comes," said Clarence White, who has operated his auto workshop in Southbridge for 49 years. "You've just got to cut your power off because you don't know how high it's going to come."
"When it starts raining, you can be inside your office and about an hour you look out and you can see waves coming down the street," he said. "It's been a way of life."
And when the floodwaters rise, Southbridge residents face the damaging effects of not only the water but also an industrial past and aging infrastructure.
Beginning in the late 1800s, Southbridge was transformed from an agricultural area to a major industrial center. Canning, lumber, tanning and iron industries moved to Southbridge to take advantage of available land and its proximity to water. Oil and coal companies moved into the area in the 1900s. When industry and manufacturing declined in the postwar years, Southbridge was left with their environmental legacy.
"Remnants of industry, arsenic, lead, chromium, heavy metals - things that are byproducts of historical as well as contemporary commercial and industrial activities - remain in the soil for quite some time," said Victor Perez, a sociologist at the University of Delaware who is part of a team of scientists there studying the effects of sea level rise on soil contaminants.
In the late 1800s and into the 1900s, there was a large tanning industry on the waterfront, said Donald Sparks, the director of the Delaware Environmental Institute at the university, who is leading the study. "They used arsenic and chromium to help tan the leather, so there are quite a few sites there that have elevated levels of [those] metals."
Some soils have properties that make them hold on to contaminants, preventing their release into the environment. What scientists don't yet know is whether repeated flooding with salt water will mobilize those contaminants and, if they do, whether that poses any risk to residents.
"We know a lot of the chemistry of the material. We know how they react in soils," he said. "But what we don't know is, what will happen under these rather dramatic conditions?"
"What we're trying to understand is, is it a potential problem?" said Sparks. "As long as these things are stabilized, it may not be a problem ... The answers are just still out there. We don't know."
It's a problem that could affect communities throughout the mid-Atlantic. "We have a lot of old abandoned industrial sites and old brownfield sites that are contaminated with a whole host of different pollutants, including metals and organic chemicals," he said. "A number of these are in urban areas ... There are obviously some environmental justice issues related to all of this as well."
While the prospect of hazardous contaminants seeping into the neighborhood is cause for concern, the public health risk from sewage in the floodwaters is greater.
"In this area, contaminants don't affect the drinking water supply, which is usually the key path of contamination," said the DNREC's Susan Love. "The human health issue in Southbridge is more that flooding sometimes has untreated wastewater in it. That is definitely a primary contact human health issue."
As with many old sewage systems along the East Coast - such as in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. - Wilmington's stormwater and sewage pipes are combined, creating a nasty mix of road runoff and sewage that floods the streets of Southbridge during rains.
"Usually, people who have basements would take [the flooding] in their stride, until it started mixing with the sewage. Then they were afraid for their kids and the health issue and the stench that's in the house," said White. "I have a drain right outside my business, and any day, you could just smell it."
Residents are hopeful that plans for a new 20-acre wetland park will bring some relief from the floods, keep sewage-laden waters off their streets and offer some protection from sea level rise.
In late September, local agencies and residents gathered at the Elbert-Palmer Community School in Southbridge for an open house event to view and comment on plans for the new wetland development as well as a new transportation project designed to connect the community to Wilmington's waterfront.
The wetland project, which will make use of an existing but degraded wetland in the neighborhood, has been 10 years in the making. New pipelines will direct runoff from Southbridge streets into the wetland, where many sediments and pollutants will fall out before the water makes its way to the Christina River. Designs for the park include raised walkways, bike paths, meadows and an upland forest area. Southbridge residents hope the park will bring new life to the community.
"They're not just worrying about the flood. They're bringing in a beautiful park, a bike park, a park for the dogs," said Davis. "I think that will also bring this community together. That's something that we need. This isn't going to just help the flood. It's going to help better our community and beautify our community."
The wetland can provide only a short-term fix in the face of sea level rise. Other strategies will be needed to protect the community in the future, said Love, but the wetland is a key part of addressing both the historic and some of the future flooding.
While plans for the park have been approved by the city, work has yet to begin on the project, and funding gaps remain.
As seas rise, financing adaptation strategies to build and maintain infrastructure will be a growing problem for many coastal states. State and federal agencies currently pick up the tab to protect Delaware's coastline, but resources are finite, and the state will increasingly be called upon to prioritize scarce funds.
Delaware's popular tourist beaches on the state's Atlantic coast, at Rehoboth and Lewes, are regularly replenished using state and federal funds, but maintenance costs are likely to rise as erosion becomes more severe and more frequent replenishment is needed. Upgrades in 2013 to six Atlantic beaches and the Indian River inlet cost $26 million, paid for by federal disaster relief funds.
Maintaining these beaches is considered beneficial to U.S. taxpayers, so the cost of beach replenishment is shared by the federal and state governments, with federal funding covering three-quarters of the cost. Delaware Bay beaches are dependent on state largesse, with replenishment covered by dedicated state beach replenishment funds.
For other environmental fixes - wetland restoration, dike construction and raising houses - the state needs to find funding from other sources.
"There's no dedicated funding source for that," said Love. Funding for those projects come from money "pieced together from federal grants, from local grants, from foundations, from private contributions ... so it's really difficult."
That includes projects like the new wetland park at Southbridge.
"It's necessary and needed to stop an environmental justice community from going under water on a fairly routine basis and to fix some public health issues," she said. "We're cobbling funding together from a variety of sources, and there's still a shortfall. There's no designated pot of money for a $20 million project like that."
It's a problem that's not unique to Delaware, and it doesn't bode well for the large-scale infrastructure projects that could be needed to hold back the water in the future. Unless rising tides can be accommodated by improved drainage, raising buildings or other means that would allow people to live on the shore despite the threat of flooding, there are just two options available: retreat from the flooded shoreline and remove existing structures or protect and fortify the coast to hold back the water, at substantial cost.
"We can't adapt our way out of climate change," said Love. "We do need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, because there's only so much adaptation, particularly for sea level rise, before we just have to get out of the way."
"If we can mitigate our greenhouse gas emissions, we might be able to limit our level of seal level rise by the end of the century to 3 feet or less, and I think we could deal with that over time," she said. "When you start thinking about 5 feet or 6 feet to the end of the century, it becomes a much harder task to preserve what we have."
A view of the retreating Knox Coast ice shelf in Antarctica in 2008. Ice shelves are important barriers that prevent land-based ice sheets and glaciers from melting into the ocean.
The melting of Antarctic ice shelves could double in the next 35 years and lead to ice shelf collapse by the end of the century if fossil fuel consumption continues at the current rate, according to a new study published Monday in the journal Nature Geoscience.
Floating ice shelves, which act as a natural "door stop" by slowing land-based ice sheet melt into the ocean, are affected by both air and ocean temperatures, explained Luke Trusel, the study's lead author and a postdoctoral scholar at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. As air and ocean temperatures rise due to climate change, the shelves melt at an accelerating rate.
Melting ice shelves alone do not contribute significantly to sea level rise, but if those shelves collapse and ice from glaciers and ice sheets then melts in the ocean, that would create a much more significant issue, Trusel said. Previous studies have estimated that the melting of the Antarctic ice sheets could contribute as much as 200 feet to global sea level rise.
Trusel said the study looks at how Antarctic ice shelf melt changes over time in response to climate change. "What we see is that melt kind of behaves like a threshold system -- either an ice shelf is pretty cold and not much melting is happening at all, or if you warm it up even a little bit, you exponentially increase the melt rate," he said.
That current threshold, Trusel said, is somewhere around the average Antarctic Peninsula summertime temperature of -3 degrees Celsius (about 26 degrees Fahrenheit). The peninsula is the northernmost part of the continent.
Trusel said temperatures have exceeded this key threshold over the past few decades on the Antarctic Peninsula, and the progressive warming from north to south has caused ice shelves to collapse.
"Essentially, this is a region where the climate has warmed at rates faster than the global average," he said.
Using satellite observations of ice surface melt and climate model simulations, researchers projected two scenarios through the year 2100: One with high levels of greenhouse gas emissions that are similar to or more intense than current levels, and another scenario with "intermediate," or reduced, emissions levels.
With reduced emissions levels, ice shelf melt would continue, but wouldn't reach the projected threshold where ice sheets become unstable. But under current or accelerated levels of greenhouse gas emissions, temperatures could warm enough to critically erode those ice shelves.
Trusel's co-authors looked at the peninsula's history and evidence of past changes in its ice shelves, and applied those projections across all of Antarctica.
Melting ice can cause water to pool on the surface, Trusel said. When that happens, rather than reflecting solar energy as ice would, the meltwater absorbs energy from the sun, and that warmer water trickles into cracks and crevices in the ice, causing further melt.
"Ice sheets just do not like water. Not on top, not below, not from the ocean -- unless the ocean layer is very cold. Water on ice means that the ice is very unstable," said Ted Scambos, the lead scientist for the science team at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, in an email to The Huffington Post. He wasn't involved in the study published Monday.
"This study shows that we can expect much larger areas of flooded ice in the future," Scambos said, noting that variables like snowfall can complicate projections. "An ice sheet area with a lot of annual snowfall can tolerate a lot more melting before these factors affecting stability come into play."
Warmer air and ocean temperatures speed the disintegration of ice shelves, but reducing greenhouse gas emissions would help slow this process, scientists say.
Ocean warming is the biggest concern when it comes to changing ice shelves, Trusel said. After examining how much melting occurs every day and making some extrapolations, he said that researchers found "a number of ice shelves are due to disintegrate just due to ocean warming."
"If we add on to this bottom-up melting and top-down melting -- which is what we're projecting -- that raises future concern," Trusel said.
He also noted that the study makes projections based on known trends and conditions, but does not predict how the disintegration of ice shelves might impact global sea levels (or how much trouble awaits New Orleans and Miami, for example).
Despite the study's alarming projections on potential ice shelf collapse, Trusel said there are two ways of looking at it.
"You could interpret this as bad news, or you could interpret it as good news -- in that we have this really clear control on the climate of Antarctica," Trusel said. "And because of that control, we ultimately determine what path we're on."
Even if the world reduces its greenhouse gas emissions, there will still be an increase in ice melt -- just not to the point where humans will have to worry about ice sheet stability, Trusel explained.
Adopting energy policies and other practices like reducing deforestation, all of which reduce carbon emissions, are central to the issue, Trusel said.
"It's up to us what path we go down. There's a silver lining here."
TORONTO, Oct 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Millions of people in the United States could be forced to abandon their homes if planet-warming emissions continue unabated through 2100, pushing global sea levels up by more than 14 feet (4.2 metres), researchers said.
In the United States, between 20 and 31 million people are living on land that would be submerged by rising oceans without aggressive cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, according to a study published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
That scenario could occur if global average temperatures rise by 3.3 degrees Celsius (5.9 degrees Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial levels by the end of the century, said the study's lead author, Benjamin Strauss.
Scientists fear ice sheets in Antarctica and other regions will melt as global temperatures increase, leading to major rises in sea levels.
"I would avoid buying property in South Florida in particular," Strauss told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Coastal California, New York and other cities on the U.S. east coast would also be hit hard by rising seas if carbon emissions are not cut drastically, he said.
To substantially blunt the threat, emissions reductions would have to be bigger than those pledged by the United States and more than 145 other countries as part of a new U.N. deal to tackle climate change due to be agreed in December.
An independent, science-based analysis released this month by Climate Action Tracker, said those plans, if implemented, would keep global warming to 2.7 degrees Celsius, higher than an internationally agreed limit of 2 degrees.
"Our actions today determine sea-level rise tomorrow," said Strauss, from the scientific group Climate Central, in a statement.
"We can act ... or we can delay and leave a legacy of irreversible rising seas that threaten to destroy some of our nation's most iconic cities."
The study did not look at the impacts of rising sea levels on cities in other countries.
To hammer home the message in the United States, where some politicians and voters remain sceptical about human-induced climate change, researchers built a map allowing residents to type in their postal code to see if their city is projected to be underwater by 2100 (choices.climatecentral.org).