Ask Josh Fitzpatrick: Why no West Coast Hurricanes?

We're coming up on hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Meteorologist Josh Fitzpatrick explains why the West Coast will never have a hurricane.

On Wednesday I visited the third grade science class at Southern Elementary School in Racine, Ohio, in Meigs County.  We talked all about tornadoes which is fitting since they’re the “Southern Tornadoes.”  One of the questions asked was “why are there no hurricanes on the West Coast?” 

No hurricane has hit the West Coast since records began, but a tropical storm with 50 mph winds did come ashore at Long Beach, CA on September 25, 1939.  It killed 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 West Coast weakens storms that make it that far north.  Hurricanes need at least 80 degree water surface temperature 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 the water 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. The last hurricane to hit Hawaii was Iniki in 1992, which devastated parts of the Island of Kauai with winds up to 115 mph. Iniki killed six people and damage was estimated at $2.3 billion.

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

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 or not from a tropical low pressure area.

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.

Keep up the great work at Southern!  Thanks to Mrs. Norris, Shane Hayman and the rest of the faculty for inviting me.

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