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Over the weekend the western coast of Mexico was battered by Hurricane Patricia, the strongest landfalling Pacific hurricane on record. Sustained winds above 200mph in this Category 5 storm were seen, and the lowest ever air pressure in the region was also recorded.

But what was the cause of this? The powerful tropical storms that usually hit this part of the world are usually spawned in the warm waters of the eastern Atlantic, off the coast of Africa. This storm tracked up from the eastern Pacific (an area where surface waters are usually cold), hitting the west coast of Mexico.

The reason for this event is something called El Nino. This is a climate cycle in the South Pacific, where warm surface water track eastwards towards South America. This has hugely significant implications for climate in the Pacific basin, but also much further afield.

The last El Nino in 2009/10 saw freezing weather hit the UK, with extensive snowfall. The current El Nino event is in fact looking like being the strongest ever recorded, so we could well be in for more of the same.

Geographers should look into the dynamics of the ocean circulation in the South Pacific that causes the cycle to commence. Physicists may be interested in the atmospheric dynamics that can see El Nino have such pronounced global impacts.

Computer scientists may also want to look at the challenges associated with forecasting weather when El Nino occurs, and its impacts on the ‘chaotic’ system of the global atmosphere. In future this could become a further challenge for us in the UK, since the BBC has recently announced it will be terminating its contract with the Met Office.

Politics students should note that this decision on the part of the BBC is being debated in Westminster this week, since while the new supplier of their weather data will be cheaper, the computing power (and hence accuracy) they can provide is much lower. This has raised numerous questions, including those relating to the economy and even national security. 

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