In 2014 Hurricane Odile rewrote the record books, having become the most powerful tropical cyclone to ever make landfall on the Baja California peninsula. Major Hurricanes very rarely make landfall on the Baja peninsula, Odile being only the third since 1948.
The year 2015 also change the history of tropical cyclones in Baja with the earliest landfall of a tropical storm. Tropical Storm Blanca surprised me for certain, beating the previous early storm by 30 days, making landfall near Magdelena Bay on June 8, 2015. The year also proved to be the longest one of concern for the southern peninsula with what seemed to be a threat from Hurricane Sandra on the 28th of November. Sandra dissipated well south of Cabo San Lucas but too was worthy of mention because only a handful of storms form in the Eastern Pacific in November and only three have ever come close to the peninsula.
Here are some other interesting updated facts about Baja's Hurricanes:
Hurricane Olivia is the only tropical cyclone to cross the peninsula and become stronger in the Sea of Cortez. Olivia crossed the peninsula as a tropical storm moving to the northeast, gathered strength over the Sea of Cortez and came back to make landfall again near Mulege as a Category 3 Hurricanes. make a second landfall on October 13th, 1967. It is also one of three Major Hurricanes to make landfall on Baja. (both #3)
Tropical Storm Octave on October 15th, 2013 became the latest season hurricane or tropical storm to make landfall in Baja. Hurricane Paul in 2012 threatened the peninsula near Magdelena Bay on October 16th but made landfall only by a few miles near Punta Eugenia as a Post-Tropical Storm on October 17th.
The Eastern Pacific Hurricane Season begins May 15th and runs through November 30. But the 'hurricane season' in Baja California Sur really begins in mid-August and runs through mid-October. Although a handful of hurricanes have brought some serious weather to the northern state of Baja California, the tropical cyclone season is almost exclusively a Baja California Sur issue. Since 1948, only 4 Category 1 Hurricanes, including 2014's Odile, and 4 Tropical Storms have made it as far up the peninsula as to affect the northern state.
The Baja peninsula extends into the fringes of the Eastern Pacific Hurricane track. The Eastern Pacific Hurricane basin is the smallest of the world's hurricane spawning regions, but one of the most active. Because the major land mass is east of the area of formation few Eastern Pacific storms make landfall, those that do make landfall often do in Baja California Sur.
The Mexican Navy base on Socorro Island, some 260 miles south-southwest of Cabo San Lucas, records more tropical cyclone direct hits than any other place on earth.
Our Eastern Pacific storms move slower and are generally physically smaller than Atlantic or Western Pacific storms. Many Baja hurricanes have hurricane force conditions extending out as little as 15 to 30 miles from the eye. A large storm, like 2003's Hurricane Ignacio pounded much of the tip of the peninsula and brought heavy rains to Mazatlan 230 miles to the east across the Sea of Cortez.
Of the average 16 storms per season 3 to 4 achieve Major Hurricane Status (that of Category 3 or greater) Only two Major Hurricanes have ever made landfall in Baja California Sur since 1949, Hurricane Paul in 1982 and Hurricane Kiko in 1989 both made landfall as a Category 3 storm on the East Cape. Only the 'old timer's' remember those storms, as very few people called the East Cape home at the time a Cabo San Lucas with a handful of little hotels and a dirt runway where their marina now resides.
Because of the topography of the peninsula, it is not uncommon for a storm to lash one side of Baja Sur while 60 miles away residents have a cloudy day with sprinkles. This was the case with powerful Hurricane Paul in 2012. Paul pounded the Pacific side near Magdalena Bay while La Paz on the Sea of Cortez side had light rain for a day.
This article focuses on Baja California Sur, although the northern State of Baja California has also had a half dozen Tropical Storm landfalls and three Category 1 hurricane landfalls since 1949, with Nora in 1997 being the most recent.
The earliest Tropical Cyclone (one of Tropical Storm intensity or greater) to make landfall in Baja was Tropical Storm Blanca on June 8th, 2015. The earliest hurricane to make landfall in Baja was an unnamed storm on July 17, 1954, making landfall near San Ignacio. Both of these systems were 'freaks' and the 1954 storm was of dubious data, as only the La Paz airport and ship reports were used in the gathering of information.
The deadliest storm was Hurricane Lisa in September of 1976. Lisa was a Category 4 Hurricane that passed up the Sea of Cortez and made landfall near Guaymas. A local dam posed a threat of failure, so the local military commander decided to relieve the pressure and blew a hole in the earth burm. The hole grew rapidly and emptied the reservoir above the city of La Paz into the arroyos below. Figures conflict but more than 3500 people lost their lives from a storm that didn't even make landfall on the peninsula.
There is a map for each month of the season, click on the map for an enlarged view of storms tracked during that month. Each table shows the year of the storm, the first date of it's highest wind speed and the highest Saffir-Simpson Scale Category rating the storm achieved. This is not necessarily the storm's rating when it made landfall in Baja California Sur. The storms are sorted by the day they achieved maximum strength, showing what part of the month is most prone to storms.
May Tropical Cyclones Affecting Baja
Let's start with May, that's an easy one. Since 1949, not a single tropical storm or hurricane has passed within 200 miles of Baja.
May is usually a slow month, as it takes time for the factors that stimulate tropical cyclones to develop. This year Tropical Storm Alvin is one of the early starters, beginning the season with a bang on May 15. In 2012, Aletta became a tropical cyclone on the 14th of May. The first tropical cyclones usually start popping up into the third and fourth week of May. But these storms are usually weak and move off into the Pacific, hundreds of miles south of Baja.
June Tropical Cyclones Affecting Baja
In June, the Eastern Pacific is starting to really warm up and the storm activity increases. The Eastern Pacific can begin to generate Major Hurricanes in June, but the waters south of Cabo San Lucas are still below the 26°C threshold. Tropical Cyclones need sea surface temperatures greater than 26° to maintain a cyclonic action. This makes it virtually impossible for a tropical cyclone to make landfall in Baja California Sur before the end of July when the local waters reach that temperature.
The earliest Tropical Cyclone to make landfall in Baja was Tropical Storm Blanca on June 8th, 2015. Only once has a Category 1 Hurricane affected Baja in June – allegedly. On June 15th, 1958 an unnamed storm Cat 1 Hurricane passed just south of Cabo San Lucas but never made landfall. The NHC data shows this as a Category 1 storm, but remember, the peninsula wasn't even a Mexican state at the time, there were no satellites and very limited data collection, putting this storm in question. Sea Surface temperatures were about normal, so the 26°C thermocline was still hundreds of miles south of Cabo. We'll give this the title of the first storm to affect Baja, but with an asterisk.
July Tropical Cyclones Affecting Baja
In July, the water in the Sea of Cortez is warmer. But hurricanes in our hemisphere want to go to the west because of their rotation. The jet stream usually doesn't drop southward across Baja until late August. Historically speaking, July is a safe month too, as the storms move harmlessly out into the Pacific and dissipate.
It is only toward the end of July that Sea Surface Temperatures above 26°C encompass the tip of the peninsula. Through August, the Sea of Cortez will warm up to 30°C and the 26°C thermocline will reach as far north as Magdalena Bay. This is one of the factors that makes landfall of a tropical cyclone in Baja possible.
By the end of July evening thunderstorms are becoming the norm in many places and winds after sunset begin to die off. Still air, sea surface temperatures, high humidity, and low ambient barometric pressure will all increase from mid-July through mid-August when our threat becomes more substantial.
Few July tropical cyclones provide a significant impact on the Baja peninsula. Occasionally the tip of the peninsula will get some rain, perhaps a windy day or two. But most of these systems pass more than 200 miles to our southwest. Large short period surf can hit south and southwest facing beaches when a Major Hurricane moves to the west-northwest south of Cabo. In 2004
August Tropical Cyclones Affecting Baja
Well, dream on if you think the luck will hold through August. I heard it said just days before Hurricane Ignacio in 2003 "...it was no concern, storms never come up the Sea until after September 1st." That is nothing but an old wives tale. By the end of August, we can start to get into some serious hurricane weather.
Anyone who has spent the summer in Baja knows, about August 15th the days become still and humid, and this is in addition to near 100-degree heat every day. Thunderstorms appear regularly over the mountains between Cabo San Lucas and La Paz. By the end of the month, it feels like hurricane weather across all of Baja California Sur and the conditions are ripe for a Baja landfall.
Five hurricanes have made landfall in Baja Sur in August. All of them after August 16 and three of them in the last 7 days of the month. The last week of August and the first week of September have brought the landfall of H1 Ignacio, H2 John, H1 Henriette in the last 10 years making it one of our highest probability periods.
The warm water of the Sea can be in the upper 80°'s by late August and this becomes a very strong hurricane magnet. Storms that generate NW of Acapulco can sometimes get stuck 'inside' and travel up the Sea. Hurricane Ignacio did exactly that on August 26, 2003.
The good news is August tropical cyclones in Baja are still rare. The upper atmosphere steering winds are still moving eastward far north of the hurricane track and a majority of the storms move off into the colder waters of the Pacific and spin apart.
However, August can spawn monster storms too, like Hurricane Kiko in 1989. Kiko made it to Category 3 has it churned up the Sea of Cortez and made landfall on the East Cape with winds in excess of 120 MPH. Kiko was one of only three Category 3 storms to ever make landfall in Baja. (Kiko, Olivia, and Odile) Kiko is most notable for its speed. The system first showed signs of development off the Tres Marias Islands and a short 42 hrs later the system made landfall on East Cape as a Category 3 Major Hurricane.
September Tropical Cyclones Affecting Baja
September is the month to be a storm watcher in Baja. More than 150 tropical storms have passed within 250 miles of Cabo San Lucas since 1949. Many of them were just tropical storms, but September is the peak of the storm season.
The most powerful Tropical Cyclone to ever make landfall on the Baja peninsula was Category 4 Hurricane Odile on September 15, 2014. Up until just 8hrs before landfall the National Hurricane Center was forecasting Odile to brush past Cabo San Lucas as a Category 2 Hurricane and move along the western side of the peninsula. Odile however, had a different trajectory and made a direct landfall hit on Cabo San Lucas as a Category 3 Hurricane. Then, to futher amaze forecasters Odile strengthened further over land, and at 9PM was upgraded to a Category 4 Hurricane. The most extensive damage was in Cabo San Lucas, particularly along south facing buildings and resorts where windows were blown out and localized flooding resulted. The city was literally torn up by the roots and took several days just to recover basic services and restore airtravel to the Los Cabos Airport. It was more than 45 days before the airport was able to resume normal operations and thousands of tourists experienced a harrowing stay. Fortunately only a handful of people were killed by the storm, numbers conflict but between 4 and six people lost their lives, three among the cruising community in La Paz.
A note of interest here as to the actual size of Odile, at 3AM Odile was about 40 miles west of La Paz as a Category 4 Hurricane. The marina area of downtown registered high Category 2 conditions and the weather stataion just 7 miles further to the north registered moderate Category 1 conditions. Just 14 miles further to the north Tropical Storm force conditions were registered at Tecolote Beach. Although La Paz had some significant damage, such as an entire loge of the stadium being ripped off and dumped into the main street, the city was far more fortunate than Cabo San Lucas and Todos Santos.
As you can see, there are far too many tropical cyclones swarming around the peninsula in September, so we have just pointed out the names on some of the more recent and powerful storms.
By mid-September, the jet stream has dropped well down into Baja Sur before it makes a dramatic turn to the east. The counter-clockwise rotation of Low-pressure systems in the northern hemisphere makes storms naturally want to 'roll off' to the west. When the jet stream reaches south over Baja it can draw these late season storms back to the east and across Baja and into the Sea of Cortez.
The jet stream can make a hurricane turn and it can tear it apart. The central column of convection is the engine that drives a hurricane. Hard turns or strong high altitude winds can disrupt the column and spin the storm apart. As the northern hemisphere cools these upper atmosphere steering winds drop further down Baja before turning east. The combination of these winds and energy still built up in the tropical regions are what make the period from September 20th to October 7th the peak of our storm season.
September has brought the only other Major Hurricane, Paul, to make landfall on the peninsula in 1982, and again on East Cape. Hurricane Lisa was the closest a Category 4 every came to Baja, passing just to the east of East Cape in 1976 and causing the flood in La Paz.
Hurricane Lisa in 1976 was the deadliest storm for the Baja peninsula in 1976. The Category 4 storm passed up the center of the Sea of Cortez dropping record amounts of rain on La Paz and the surrounding region. An earthen dam south of the city was put under stress and a military official, concerned for the population centers below ordered the dam to be breached to allow a controlled release. Unfortunately, the breach in the earthworks grew quickly, as to which any child who has played in the water would attest and significant portions of the city were struck by a wall of water rushing to the Sea of Cortez. Estimates of the death toll vary from the official total around 3800 to testimony of heavy equipment operators who claim to have buried many times that number in mass graves following the disaster.
In 2009, Hurricane Jimena crossed then peninsula and emerged near Loreto. The storm stalled, reversed course and hung out over the Sea coast between Loreto and Mulege for more than 36hrs, dumping an incredible 27 inches of rain during the period.
October Tropical Cyclones Affecting Baja
The Hurricane season ends even more dramatically than it began. A number of late season storms have slammed the Pacific coast and crossed the peninsula to bring devastating rains to Loreto, Mulege, and Santa Rosalia in the past few years.
The first 10 days of October are dangerous for Baja Sur, by the 12th the odds drop considerably. In 2008, Hurricane Norbert slammed the relatively uninhabited west coast as a Category 2. Hurricane Javier
The latest hurricane to make landfall on the Baja peninsula was the freak storm Olivia in 1967 on October 15. Olivia crossed the peninsula as a Tropical Storm emerging in the Sea to become a Category 1 Hurricane to peak at Category 3 before coming ashore again near Loreto. But here I must take time to dispel a popular legend, Olivia is the only storm since 1949 to gain strength when reentering the warm waters of the Sea of Cortez.
In 2012, Hurricane Paul came very close to breaking that record, pounding the Pacific coast from Magdalena Bay to San Ignacio and pouring many inches of rain down on the central valley of Baja Sur. Paul did its damage on October 17 but failed to become the latest tropical cyclone to make landfall, as it skirted the coast for more than 100 miles but only made landfall as a Tropical Depression and only for a few kilometers, just north of Punta Abreojos.
By the third week of October, the entire Eastern Pacific begins to calm down. A high-pressure system will slide down into northern Mexico and begin to dry out not only the Pacific basin but the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean too. This is one of the best times to visit Baja California Sur, immediately following the break in the weather. The humidity vanishes overnight, the temps drop by 5 to 10 degrees and the Sea of Cortez is still wonderfully warm.
November Tropical Cyclones Affecting Baja
Simply put, there aren't any real threats. Although the season officially runs through the end of the month the entire basin is pretty quiet. As winds increase in the northern hemisphere with the onset of winter conditions become unfavorable for storm formation well south of Baja and only a few storms are generated in the whole of the Eastern Pacific. The spectacular weather that began in Baja Sur with the end of the season for us in mid-October continues through the last week of November. About then we often get our first blow from the north that brings an end to summer.
Here we must call history into question. Explorer Juan Cabrillo's expedition claimed to have endured hurricane conditions near the Cedros Islands in mid-November. Granting that with Mother Nature you never rule anything out, only 3 hurricanes and three tropical storms have ever ventured as far north as Cedros since 1949, none of them did so after the third week of September.
Hurricanes are an amazing force of nature and a marvel to behold. A hurricane generates as much force every 12 minutes as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. If you happen to be in Baja Sur during a tropical cyclone secure your property, find a safe place above flood levels, stay put and take wonder at the forces of nature. Remember the leading cause of death in a hurricane is from drowning - usually precursored by doing something stupid.