Unmasking the West Coast Mighty Hurricane Shield: Is Climate Change Its Kryptonite?


As the calendar flips to June 1, marking the commencement of the Atlantic hurricane season, an uneasy apprehension descends on millions inhabiting the regions from Texas to New England.

Their worry is justified by the recurring assault of hurricanes and tropical tempests that annihilate neighborhoods, inundate homes, and bring about prolonged power outages.

In stark contrast, sizable coastal cities dotting the West Coast hardly bat an eyelid as the Eastern Pacific hurricane season ushers in on May 15. These regions, although haunted by wildfires and seismic threats, luxuriate in what appears to be peaceful sea conditions.

However, other sections of the Pacific Ocean don’t share this tranquility. Mexico consistently bears the brunt of hurricanes, and regions like Hawaii are projected to face an escalated hurricane risk this year.

So, why isn’t there a pervasive sense of trepidation around hurricanes from San Diego to Seattle? Could a changing global climate upset this seeming harmony?

Intriguingly, sea surface temperatures near the shore and trade winds along the Equator play a significant role. A pacific wind condition coupled with a cooler water stream safeguarding California’s coast offers a protective shield to the West Coast.

This condition is striking because the regions south of San Diego on the Baja California Peninsula routinely endure landfall from tropical storms and hurricanes, aided by considerably warmer waters.

But has a hurricane ever lashed out at the West Coast?

An archived report from the Daily Alta California conveys a chilling account from a correspondent in San Diego who chronicled “one of the most terrible and fierce hurricanes ever experienced by our otherwise serene city.”

The correspondent details, “Roofs of houses, trees, fences, … filled the air in every direction, causing extensive damage within the city and its immediate surrounding. Streets, alleys, and roads, from as far as can be heard, were swept clean as if meticulously cleaned by countless brooms over several months.”

In 1939, a hurricane named “El Cordonazo” nearly struck Los Angeles on Sept. 24 but lost its hurricane strength before hitting land. It set rainfall records for September, dumping 5.42 inches in LA and 11.6 inches at Mount Wilson, as reported by the National Weather Service office in San Diego.

While official weather records do not document any direct landfalling hurricanes in California, they frequently occur further south along Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula.

Yet, California and Arizona have experienced the impacts of at least 50 tropical storms or remnants of hurricanes, including those that disintegrated offshore and leftovers of storms that moved north post landfall along the Peninsula.

In 1978, Norman crossed California as a Tropical Depression, wreaking havoc and causing over $300 million in damages. Its remnants later drifted into Arizona.

In 2005, Hurricane Emily’s remnants reached California from the east, post its landfall near the Texas/Mexico border, continuing its westward journey.

In 2022, Hurricane Kay was downgraded from a hurricane over 300 miles to the south and had dissipated around 100 miles to the south, but its associated tropical moisture resulted in rainfall up to 5.85 inches at Mount Laguna, California, and 4.6 near Green Valley, Arizona.

Arizona also experiences rain from tropical systems, stated Isaac Smith, a meteorologist with the Phoenix weather service office.

Remnants of such storms arrive every few years and can originate from the Gulf of California and the Baja Peninsula and even the Gulf of Mexico. In October 2018, Smith noted that remnants from two systems dumped 5 inches of rain, marking it the rainiest October on record in Phoenix.



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