Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Has a hurricane ever hit the West Coast? (The answer may surprise you)

Last week, the East Coast endured both a 5.8 earthquake (and its aftershocks) and Hurricane Irene. This week, the locusts are scheduled to descend.

I'm grateful Irene wasn't quite as bad as many had feared. But the occurrence of both events last week left me wondering: Has the quake-prone West Coast ever been hit with a hurricane or a similar storm of its magnitude?

After some Googling, I discovered the answer is: kinda sorta. There was one known tropical storm to hit California in 1939 with 50 mph winds, according to a USA Today article, but that's the closest we've ever come. Remnants of hurricanes and tropical storms formed off the coast of Mexico or elsewhere have sometimes worked their up to the U.S. West Coast. But a direct hit from the likes of Hurricane Irene just doesn't happen here.

Hurricanes do form in the Northwest Pacific Basin. And like hurricanes born in the Atlantic, they move in a west/northwest direction. In the case of the Northwest Pacific, that direction would take a hurricane away from the West Coast, whereas in the Atlantic, a north-by-northwest direction aims hurricanes directly toward land.

The other reason we don't get hurricanes here is that the Pacific Ocean along the U.S. West Coast is way too cold to fuel a big funnel. You know how you get a headache if you drink a Slurpee too fast? Imagine that happening to your entire body when you get into the Pacific Ocean here, even during the height of summer. When I was in Charleston in late June, the Atlantic Ocean temperature at Folly Beach was 85 degrees. According to today's San Francisco Chronicle, the ocean temperature here is 57 degrees today.

The SF skyline is completely invisible this morning from our deck
Because the Pacific is so chilly, there's a virtually permanent fog bank just offshore. When the inland valleys heat up, it often pulls that 'marine layer' into San Francisco. And so, I wake up on a late August morning like today, stare out our window at the fog (see the picture), turn up the heat (yes, I turn the heat on in August), and confront my mixed emotions about that damn marine layer. I despise it because it robs San Franciscans of a true summer, year after year. I miss the simple pleasures of a summer that East Coasters take for granted: swimming in the ocean, dining al fresco at night, to name a few.

But this morning, after Irene has come and gone, I begrudgingly appreciate the fog. In the land of major earthquakes and huge summer wildfires, the fog is a reminder of why we don't have to worry about hurricanes, too.


  1. You may have missed searching for tropical storms and cyclones. I only know about the Columbus Day storm from hearing stories from my mom. Gusts of this 100+ MPH were recorded in Oregon and Washington from this extratropical cyclone, including one in excess of 145. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columbus_Day_Storm_of_1962

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