Historical Look at Hurricanes in Baja
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The Baja peninsula extends into the fringes of the Eastern Pacific Hurricane track. The Eastern Pacific Hurricane basin is the smallest of the worlds 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 there 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, but 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 Calvin on July 8th, 1993. 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.
This article was originally published on the Insider in 2004, and it has been updated yearly.
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 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 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.
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 thermo cline 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 thermo cline 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 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 though 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 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 two Category 3 storms to ever make landfall in Baja. (see the 60hr Life of Hurricane Kiko)