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Health & Science

The Science Of A Cyclone: Dissecting Hurricane Patricia


People in Mexico were expecting the worst over the weekend, and it did not come. Hurricane Patricia was the strongest storm ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere. It made landfall in a rural part of Mexico's West coast and quickly lost strength. Let's bring in a meteorologist now. It's Kristen Corbosiero. She's a professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences at the University of Albany. Good morning.

KRISTEN CORBOSIERO: Good morning, David. How are you?

GREENE: I'm well. Thank you. How did this storm get so big so fast?

CORBOSIERO: Well, that's a question that we're hopefully going to figure out. The intensification rate of this storm was one of the fastest we'd ever seen. So we're really, as scientists, excited to look into the problem and figure out why.

GREENE: How bad would the destruction have been if this had this been a big population center?

CORBOSIERO: It would have been devastating. I think it's really hard to think about what it would have been like, that if a storm like this had intensified so rapidly, say, near the coast of Florida or near the coast of Texas or even further up or down the coast in Mexico - we were very lucky that the storm didn't make landfall in a more populated area.

GREENE: And tell me just a few of the big questions you're now trying to answer after you begin studying this storm.

CORBOSIERO: Right. So we were really lucky in this storm that - typically, in the Eastern Pacific, we don't fly into hurricanes with the planes that we observe in the Atlantic. But for this particular storm, because there hasn't been a lot of tropical cyclones in the Atlantic this year, there were a number of aircraft that flew into the storm and sampled it. So we got a really unique data set for a storm in the Eastern Pacific and a unique data set in a storm that rapidly intensified so strongly.

GREENE: And what's one big question you're trying to answer?

CORBOSIERO: The biggest question that my work is trying to answer is to look at why storms rapidly intensify. It's one of the greatest forecasting challenges we have studying tropical cyclones. Clearly, these are sort of the most impactful storms. When they intensify so rapidly so close to land, they're really - the impact to life and property is maximized.

GREENE: Does it really remain that much of a mystery?

CORBOSIERO: It really does. We understand generally why hurricanes intensify. But understanding why this storm intensified so rapidly is a mystery to us, that we have ideas about it. But if you look at our most successful hurricane forecasting models, none of them captured this kind of rapid intensification. I mean, this is an extreme case - two or three times what we have on average. But understanding that rapid intensification, where a storm would intensify this fast overnight or in the matter of 24 hours is something we just can't grasp at this time. Our models don't resolve it. And we don't quite understand all the processes that are involved yet.

GREENE: All right. Kristen Corbosiero is a tropical meteorologist at the University of Albany. Thanks so much for joining us.

CORBOSIERO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.