Tropical Storms in the Southwest: Unusual Occurrences

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Tropical storms in the Southwest are rare occurrences, with only one confirmed landfall in the last 82 years. However, remnant storms from tropical cyclones are fairly common in the region, with an average of 3.1 affecting the U.S. Southwest each year from 1992 to 2005. These storms continue on after a tropical cyclone loses its surface circulation. Factors making this storm unusual are an El Niño climate pattern and a heat dome over much of the U.S, pushing winds east and south and allowing storms to come way farther north than they normally would.

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How rare are tropical storms in the Southwest? California had only one confirmed tropical storm landfall in the past. It was in September 1939 and called the Long Beach Tropical Storm. It caused about US$2 million dollars in damage in the Los Angeles area – that would be about $44 million today. A hurricane in 1858 came close but didn’t make landfall, though its winds did significant damage to San Diego.

The storm in 1939 made landfall as a Category 3, with wind speeds of 115 mph

What the Southwest does see fairly regularly are the remnants of tropical cyclones, storms that continue on after a tropical cyclone loses its surface circulation. These remnant storms are more common in the region than people might think. Just last year, Hurricane Kay took a similar track to the one Hurricane Hilary is on and brought significant rainfall to Southern California and Arizona. Famously, Hurricane Nora in 1997 made landfall in Mexico’s Baja California and kept moving north, bringing tropical storm-force winds to California and widespread flooding that caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, particularly to fruit trees and agriculture.

Joshua Tree National Park in the Mojave desert reported a gust of 95 mph from the storm in September 1939

A study led by atmospheric scientist Elizabeth Ritchie in 2011 found that, on average, about 3.1 remnant systems from tropical cyclones affected the U.S. Southwest each year from 1992 to 2005. That’s a short record, but it gives you an idea of the frequency. Typically, the remnants of tropical cyclones don’t go beyond California, Nevada and Arizona, though it wouldn’t be unprecedented. In this case, forecasters expect the effects to extend far north. The National Hurricane Center on Aug. 18 projected at least a moderate risk of flooding across large parts of Southern California, southern Nevada and far-western Arizona, and a high risk of flooding for regions east of San Diego.

In 2015 Hurricane Linda made landfall in Mexico and brought flooding rains and gusts up to 79 mph to Southern California, at a time when there was an El Niño

What’s making this storm so unusual? One influence is the El Niño climate pattern this year, which is showing signs of strengthening in the Pacific. Another, which might be less intuitive, is the heat dome over much of the U.S. During El Niño, the tropical Pacific is warmer than normal, and both the eastern and central Pacific tend to be more active with storms, as we saw in 2015 and 1997. Generally, hurricanes need at least 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 degrees Celsius) to maintain their intensity. Normally, the waters off Southern California are much cooler. But with the high initial intensity of Hurricane Hilary over warm water to the south, and the fact that the storm is moving fast, forecasters think it might be able to survive the cooler water.The influence of the heat dome is interesting. Meteorology researcher Kimberly Wood published a fantastic thread on X, formerly known as Twitter, describing the large-scale pattern around similar storms that have affected the southwestern United States. A common thread with these storms is the presence of a ridge, or high-pressure system, in the central U.S. When you have a high-pressure system like the heat dome covering much of the country, air is pushed down and warms significantly. Air around this ridge is moving clockwise. Meanwhile, a low-pressure system is over the Pacific Ocean with winds rotating counterclockwise. The result is one big-scale set-up with wind flowing east and south, allowing storms to come way farther north than they normally would.

In 1997, during the El Niño of that year, Hurricane Nora caused extensive flooding and damage throughout the Southwest, with areas of California receiving up to a foot of rain

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