The Sound And The Fury: Hurricane Patricia Vs. Jupiter’s Great Red Spot

Hurricane Patricia photographed earlier this afternoon from orbit by astronaut Scott Kelly aboard the International Space Station. He tweeted: "Looks menacing from the space station. Stay safe below." Credit: NASA
Hurricane Patricia photographed earlier this afternoon from orbit by astronaut Scott Kelly aboard the International Space Station. He tweeted: “Looks menacing from the space station. Stay safe below.” Credit: NASA

You’ve probably heard it by now. Patricia is the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the western hemisphere, and it’s making landfall this evening in Mexico. With sustained winds now of 190 mph and gusts to 200 mph bearing down on Mexico’s west coast, we hope everyone in the storm’s path has found shelter or will very soon.


International Space Station video of Hurricane Patricia taken October 23, 2015

Classified as a Category 5 hurricane, the most powerful, Patricia has the energy to collapse roofs, flatten buildings and cause widespread flooding. Its hurricane-force winds extend out 35 miles from its center, but its most extreme winds are confined to a narrower zone just outside of the eye or center of the storm called the eyewall.

When NASA-NOAA's Suomi NPP satellite passed over Patricia on October 23 at 5:20 a.m. EDT the VIIRS instrument that flies aboard Suomi NPP looked at the storm in infrared light. Cloud top temperatures of thunderstorms around the eyewall were between 180K (-135.7F/ -93.1C) and 190 Kelvin (-117.7F/ -83.1C). Credit: UW/CIMSS/William Straka III
When NASA-NOAA’s Suomi NPP satellite passed over Patricia on October 23 at 4:20 a.m. CDT the VIIRS instrument that flies aboard Suomi NPP looked at the storm in infrared light. Cloud top temperatures of thunderstorms around the eyewall were between -138° F / -93° C. Hurricanes may occur in tropical latitudes but their clouds reach chilly heights!
Credit: UW/CIMSS/William Straka III

No one knows if Patricia will break the highest recorded winds on Earth before it’s run its course. The fastest wind speed ever recorded not related to tornadoes happened during the passage of tropical cyclone Olivia on April 10, 1996 when an automatic weather station on Barrow Island, Australia, registered a maximum wind gust of 253 mph (408 km/hr). Bring in tornadoes and things get scarier; one of the tornadoes that hit the suburbs of Oklahoma City on May 3, 1999 clocked out at 318 mph (512 km/hr), the highest wind speed ever recorded.

Jupiter's iconic Great Red Spot is an extremely windy place on the planet gusts up to 475 mph. In this illustration, a typical Category 5 hurricane is shown for scale. Credit: NASA
Jupiter’s iconic Great Red Spot is a gigantic storm similar to a hurricane with gusts up to 425 mph. In this illustration, the tiny dot at right is the actual size of a typical Category 5 hurricane compared to the Spot, which is about twice as big as Earth. Credit: NASA

This is surprisingly close to the wind speeds inside Jupiter’s Great Red Spot (GRS). Like a hurricane on Earth, the center is relatively calm, but farther out, the winds shriek at 270 to 425 mph (430 to 680 km/hr) or 1 1/2 to twice as windy as what Patricia’s delivering tonight. On Earth, hurricanes soon loose strength when they make landfall, but on Jupiter, which has no land, only atmosphere, large storms can last centuries. The GRS has been around since at least the early 1600s.

Hurricane Patricia photographed on October 22, 2015 by NASA's DSCOVR observatory. Credit: NASA
Hurricane Patricia (below center) photographed on October 22, 2015 by NASA’s DSCOVR observatory from a million miles out. Credit: NASA

We can look at Jupiter’s gusty eye through a small telescope from the safety that half a billion miles distance brings. The space station astronauts can do the same as they orbit above Patricia’s wrath. But the folks on the ground are front and center to nature’s fury. Let’s hope they all make it.