San Diego has been hit by hurricanes in the past and may be affected by such storms in the future according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). While a hurricane in San Diego would likely produce significantly less damage than Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, it could still exact a high cost to Southern California especially if the region was caught off guard.
Hurricane Risk in California
While most hurricanes in the United States affect the East Coast, the West Coast is also vulnerable. According to research presented earlier this year at the annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society in San Diego, California, a tropical cyclone brought hurricane-force winds to San Diego in 1858.
"On October 2, 1858, estimated sustained hurricane force winds produced by a tropical cyclone located a short distance offshore were felt in San Diego," said Christopher Landsea, the co-author of a paper on the 1858 hurricane and a hurricane researcher at NOAA's Hurricane Research Division at the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory in Miami, Fla. "Extensive damage was done in the city and was described as the severest gale ever felt to that date, nor has it been matched or exceeded in severity since."
Coral evidence suggests the ocean was particularly warm that year and, according to a press release from NOAA, "Warmer waters and a conducive atmosphere allowed the hurricane to sustain Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale Category 1 intensity (wind speed of 72-95 mph) as far north as southern California. Available evidence suggests that the hurricane tracked just offshore from San Diego, without the eye coming inland, but close enough to produce damaging winds along the entire coast from San Diego to Long Beach."
Should such a storm return it would cost the region hundreds of millions to billions of dollars in damage according to Christopher Landsea and Michael Chenoweth, authors of the study.
"What this also tells us is that a hurricane has directly affected southern California in recorded history and we should remember that if the conditions are right, the area could get hit again," Landsea said. "Mike and I hope that emergency managers, residents of the area, business owners, the insurance industry, and decision-makers be made aware of this possibility, as most in southern California may think they are completely safe from hurricanes because they are on the Pacific coast instead of the Atlantic."
Impact of Climate Change on Hurricanes
While there is no evidence to suggest that climate change will produce more frequent hurricanes, new research suggests that warmer oceans and seas could produce stronger storms. Late last month an atmospheric scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology released a study in Nature that found hurricanes have grown significantly more powerful and destructive over the past three decades. Kerry Emanuel, the author of the study, warns that since hurricanes depend on warm water to form and build, global climate change might increase the effect of hurricanes still further in coming years. It is conceivable that a warmer Pacific could someday enable a hurricane to strike cities farther north, even Los Angeles.
Hurricanes already nearby in Mexico
Hurricanes do batter Baja California (the northernmost state of Mexico, located just south of San Diego) from time to time, usually coinciding with El Niño years. In September 1997, an El Niño year, Hurricane Linda became the strongest storm recorded in the eastern Pacific with winds estimated at 180 mph For a time there was concern that Linda would come ashore in California as a tropical storm, but the storm turned away and the state only experienced high surf and thunderstorms.