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Why No West Coast Hurricanes?

We know the East Coast and the Gulf Coast are susceptible to hurricanes but why not the West Coast? Meteorologist Josh Fitzpatrick explains.

See full size imageOn my hurricane forecast blog, I received a question from Steve, who asks: "Josh, since this is the beginning of the Hurricane Season, can you please answer this question for many of us. Why are there no Hurricane's on the Pacific Side. Seems they have all of the Temps that we have but no Hurricane's. Why? Thanks."

 No hurricane has hit the California Coast since records began, but a tropical storm with 50 mph winds did come ashore at Long Beach on Sept. 25, 1939, killing at least 45 people.

Since winds over the tropics around the globe blow generally from east to west, storms that form over the warm Pacific off the Central American and Mexican coasts are generally pushed toward the west. Some storms do turn toward the north to hit the Mexican Coast. Cold ocean water off the California Coast weakens storms that make it that far north.  Hurricanes need at least 80 degree water surface temperatures and the Pacific waters off of California rarely get above 70, even in summer due to a colder stream of water known as the California Current.  The East Coast has the Gulf Stream, keeping them very warm. 

Even though the storms die before reaching the West Coast, the remnants can bring heavy rain to California, the Southwest and sometimes to places as far east as Oklahoma.

Most hurricanes die before they get as far west as Hawaii, but some do make it. The water around Hawaii is cooler than farther south and the storms weaken, however. The last hurricane to hit Hawaii was Iniki in 1992, which devastated parts of the Island of Kauai with winds probably up to 115 mph. Iniki killed six people and damage was estimated at $2.3 billion in year 2000 dollars.

Eastern and central Pacific storms are called hurricanes.  Storms west of the International Date Line are called typhoons.

Until weather satellites began "seeing" eastern Pacific hurricanes in the 1970s, meteorologists had underestimated how many occur because many storms never come near land and fewer ships sail the eastern Pacific than the Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. The eastern Pacific hurricane season runs from May 15 through Nov. 30.

From time to time winds above 75 mph hit the Pacific Coast, especially the Northwest Coast. While these are "hurricane force" winds, they are not from hurricanes, but from strong extratropical storms.

One famous case was the Columbus Day Storm of 1962 that hit northern California, Oregon and Washington. It caused more than 50 deaths and had winds as high as 119 mph in Portland. When it hit the West Coast, this storm was extratropical, but began as Typhoon Frieda nine days earlier near Wake Island in the western Pacific.

The storm stayed a rather weak typhoon with 100 mph winds, before merging with an extratropical storm. The extratropical storm moved eastward across the Pacific and then northward along the Northwest coast.

While some accounts called the storm "Typhoon Frieda" or "Hurricane Frieda" when it hit the Northwest, it was no longer a tropical storm, but had become extratropical.  That sounds like a good topic for a future blog!

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