Pinprick in the Night
|Location||Buena Vista, Quintana Roo, MEXICO|
|Date||07-08 Aug 2012|
|Intensity||Cat 2 (85 knots)|
When a hurricane comes and goes in one hour—in one angry burst—does it deserve to be called a hurricane? Absolutely. In fact, Ernesto was one of the most exquisite microcanes I've ever chased—a tiny but perfectly-formed coil of wind and rain. It was a unique experience to punch the core of such a tightly-wound system. This was the ultimate precision chase—one in which every half-mile counted.
What I'll remember most about Ernesto was its size.
I've never chased such a small hurricane; it was the microcane of microcanes—essentially a large tornado cutting across the tropical wilderness.
But it wasn't just the cyclone’s tiny size that made this chase so tough—it was everything.
For me on the ground, it was the remote, under-populated landfall region deep in the Yucatan jungles; the vague and incomplete cartography of the region; the nighttime darkness; and the lack of phone and data-network coverage.
For iCyclone's Chief Navigating Officer, Scott Brownfield—“the dude in the blue shirt” at Mission Control in Texas—challenges included an exceptionally wobbly eye; no NOAA recon data; and only some highly distorted, attenuated radar imagery out of Belize to work with.
In the final hours, when I could no longer access radar and was for all intents and purposes "blind", Scott had full responsibility for pointing me to the exact pixel of earth that the cyclone’s tiny core would be crossing. Ernesto was so small, misinterpreting the radar imagery by just a few miles would have turned a successful chase into a complete bust.
But Scott came through.
Deciding to chase a hurricane is always a difficult decision—it’s such a big investment of time, money, and energy—but this was the worst ever. I’ve never felt so indecisive.
On the night of 06 August, Ernesto looked pretty sad on satellite imagery—a huge, loose gyre over the NW Caribbean that completely lacked an inner core. And it was still only a tropical storm. A chase seemed unlikely. I was ready to cancel my flight to Cancun.
But then—as if to torture me—a tiny dot of convection appeared near the storm’s center, and it slowly expanded overnight.
I just couldn’t make up my mind about what to do—felt paralyzed.
I spent the predawn hours of 07 August pacing around the house, fidgeting—doing everything to avoid making the big decision. I was hesitant to take another big Yucatan gamble after the Hurricane Rina fiasco of last year—the worst bust of my chase career. I couldn’t handle another big, public failure so soon after that.
Scott and I talked and finally reached consensus: I would not chase Ernesto. But I sensed slight hesitation in Scott’s voice—like he was perhaps disappointed I wasn’t going for it.
I looked at the satellite loops again. That small CDO was expanding a bit; Ernesto was improving. It lingered in my mind that meteorologist Adam Moyer had been insisting—quite consistently, for several days—that the cyclone would really start to spin up in the final hours before landfall—perhaps quite rapidly.
IR satellite images from 0545Z and 1045Z on 07 Aug, showing the evolution of Ernesto's core.
No, I would not chase Ernesto. Too much of a gamble.
No, no, no.
But at 5 am, I found myself pulling out the suitcase and gathering my chase equipment—inexplicably, as if I had no control over my body.
Yes—at the very last second, I decided to chase Ernesto. I couldn’t help it. Why? Well…
The morning's infrared satellite imagery suggested a nice, compact core was developing. And the NW Caribbean is the sweet spot of the entire Atlantic basin—a "magic zone" where anything can happen. Sometimes cyclones in the "magic zone" go berserk, particularly at peak season—and I just couldn't risk missing something special. I started to get that uncontrollable urge to hunt a cyclone.
So I had to go.
And once I made the decision, there wasn't a moment to lose; I was already late for my flight.
Within one hour, I’d packed my equipment and clothes, hopped in the car, raced to the airport, and arrived at the check-in counter. I setup international data service and booked a hotel while waiting at the gate. I fired off a bunch of eMails sitting on the runway. I strategized in flight.
Cruel efficiency. I have the chase ritual down to a science.
I landed in Cancun at 2 pm, picked up the rental car in a heavy downpour, and headed toward Playa Del Carmen. Ernesto had just been upgraded to a hurricane, and I was ready to roll!
The plan: drive S, down the E coast of the Yucatan, to where Ernesto's center would cross the coast. .
I've chased on the Yucatan a couple of times, so this is familiar turf for me. One of the interesting things about being there on the ground is that it doesn't always match the maps—one of the idiosyncrasies of chasing on the Yucatan.
I spent that grey, gloomy day snaking down the Peninsula, checking in with Scott each time I reached a town. Late in the afternoon, I stopped for coffee in Tulum, and we had a strategy session via phone as intermittent rain showers moved through. Scott had been following Ernesto’s eye on the Belize radar, and the motion was trending S—so I needed to head further down, to Felipe Carrillo Puerto.
But when I reached the town early in the evening, I had to keep going—the hurricane was continuing to wobble S. It seemed each time I reached the agreed destination, it wasn’t quite far enough. My final chase target was like a mirage in the desert—I couldn’t catch up with it.
Not only that—Ernesto was speeding up as it neared the coast. Time was running out.
As darkness fell, the rain came down in sheets—and I crept down Highway 307 at a snail’s pace.
4. Zeroing In
Around 8 pm, I’d just passed Limones and was at the junction where you either continue down to Chetumal or turnoff to Majahual—a resort town right on the coast that would most certainly see the hurricane’s full force.
The cyclone’s center was just offshore and it was raining hard.
It was time to pick a location and hunker down.
I’d lost phone service completely, and could barely get on the Internet—it was almost impossible to load images. I was losing my connection to Scott and the outside world. I’d be on my own soon.
Taking a wild stab, I started down the highway to Majahual. But it was a long drive in the stormy darkness—and I realized that if I committed to Majahual, I’d be trapped there and unable to get further down the coast if Ernesto went way S, toward Bacalar or Chetumal.
So after a few miles I turned around and drove back toward the 307 junction. I found a short patch of road with data connectivity and circled around that spot in a desperate attempt to reach Scott.
Knowing I’d soon lose my Internet connection for good, I told him—via the AmericanWx forum—that we needed to select my location. Time had run out.
The problem? Well, there were a few:
- Even as it came ashore, the eye continued to wobble like crazy—and Scott was having trouble interpreting the radar motion.
- The only available radar was from very far away—Belize City—meaning the images were fuzzy and attenuated.
- The National Hurricane Center had canceled recon flights due to mechanical problems, so there were no center fixes.
- Ernesto’s core was tiny—it would require great precision to hit it. Even a couple of miles’ error would mean a bust.
BZE radar images at 9:30 and 9:45 pm CDT on 08 Aug, showing Ernesto's center nearing landfall.
Scott was feeling the heat—and so was I. Tensions were high. I finally forced the issue.
At 8:40 pm, I wrote, desperately: “Scott, should I head down to Chetumal? I just need you to tell me. Can't load pics too well, so it's like I'm blind. I need someone to tell me where to go. Now.”
Scott replied: “Right now? Buena Vista sees the eye. That junction sees the N eyewall. Bacalar sees the S eyewall. The trend continues S. Head towards Chetumal, but not fully committed to Chetumal.”
Just a little after 9 pm, radar showed the eye trending more W again—and Scott’s confidence firmed up: “Jesus, there is my westward bump I've been looking for. If you see this, Josh: Hang in Buena Vista. No further S for now.”
And so the final destination was decided after 18 solid hours of traveling, navigating, and analyzing: Buena Vista—a small, rundown, forgotten town off the side of the highway.
Hurricane chases take you to the most random destinations.
I exited the highway and drove down Buena Vista’s dark, deserted streets, the car thumping badly on potholes and ditches.
After a few turns, I saw a light up ahead—the entrance to a shabby old store with mostly empty shelves. I was in desperate need of electricity—my potable adapter had died and I could no longer use the car as a power source.
Walking in with equipment and maps, I’m sure I must have seemed stranger than a Martian to the elderly shopkeeper. I introduced myself and explained myself as best I could in broken Spanish—asked if I could stay there for a bit to charge my computer, etc.—while handing him some money. He received me graciously, and I set up a sort of temporary chase headquarters.
It was nice to be out of the car and in a brightly-lit room—and I took a moment to pinpoint my position on the maps and really assess the situation.
The location was comfortable, but after a while, I decided to relocate. My main issue: the shop was in a sheltered spot, surrounded by lots of trees—and I wanted to ride out the storm in a more exposed location.
I said goodbye to the nice shopkeeper, packed my stuff, and got back on the Highway 307. A little further S, I found my spot—a brightly-lit patio restaurant on the side of the highway called Aries II. (Location: 18.882N 88.244W.)
When I parked the car and hauled my equipment in, it was already 9:30 pm—but the light rain and calm conditions hardly suggested a hurricane was quickly approaching. I ordered coffee and set up in a corner of the patio, charging the iPad, calibrating the barometer, and laying out my camera equipment.
The patio was filled with cheerful patrons—playing games, eating, and chatting under the thatched roof.
After hours of rushing around to find the right spot, the ensuing wait was disturbing, to say the least.
By 10 pm conditions had hardly changed—just drizzle and light winds, with the barometer hovering around 1000 mb. I got into a friendly argument with another patron of the restaurant—he insisted the hurricane had come ashore further N, which I knew was not the case. He just didn’t believe me when I insisted the cyclone was coming our way.
But by 11 pm, nothing had changed—still just a tranquil drizzle outside—and the air pressure was hardly dropping. I was puzzled. Surely, the center of the hurricane must be very close by now—unless it changed course.
I had no Internet connection—no way to connect with the team or view radar to understand what was going on. Had Ernesto hooked S toward Chetumal, perhaps?
By 11:30 pm, there was still no wind and just a light, misty rain. Most of the other patrons had departed on a tour bus, so I was alone with the restaurant owners and staff. The patio had become curiously quiet.
I felt downright confounded. Where was the hurricane?
It made no sense. Had it disappeared?
What I didn’t know was that Ernesto’s tiny, angry core was just about upon me…
Although Ernesto's center was very close to Buena Vista by this time
(11:25 pm CDT 08 Aug), I still wasn't seeing much wind or rain.
7. The Cyclone!
It swept in suddenly out of the darkness, with very little buildup, a few minutes before midnight.
Sudden hard gusts from the N took a tree down—I could hear the sound of wood cracking across the parking lot. The rain came pouring down. I checked the barometer and noticed the air pressure was finally starting to drop—fast.
Pulsing gusts increased rapidly so that soon the whole rickety building was clanking nonstop.
A large piece of metal roofing tore off and went hurtling past the entrance. Restaurant workers hurriedly stacked the patio furniture—it suddenly seemed dangerous to leave it out.
The wind increased and started making a high-pitched whistling sound under the roof. The waitresses were nervously laughing with each loud crashing sound emanating from the darkness outside the restaurant. The lights flickered off and came back on.
The pressure was dropping like a rock now—faster than I'd ever seen, up to 1 mb every 2 minutes.
The roof started heaving up and down, with the wall posts. Jars were falling from shelves and smashing on the floor. The gates and doors were swinging open and shut, everything was moving. The whole building was dancing, like a funhouse. Nothing was solid or stable. The sound was like a constant banging of pots and pans.
We could hear wood cracking, and it looked like the roof was going to lift off any second. We all retreated to the back of the restaurant—against a wall, near the bathrooms—and soon the lights went out for good. We stayed in our safe zone as the cyclone continued roaring through the darkness.
And for a moment, I thought about how magical hurricanes are—how strange it is that simple warm Caribbean water naturally conjures up such a ferocious engine as a hurricane.
IR satellite image of Ernesto at 12:25 am CDT 08 Aug, as the distinct eye was
passing within a couple of miles of the iCyclone location.
Around half past midnight, the storm was hitting its angry peak—and it was at this time that the pressure bottomed out under 976 mb and started to recover. Since the winds continued full strength without pause, I realized that I'd missed the eye.
But what I didn't realize was how close I was—perhaps a mile away, maybe two miles at the most. Back on the AmericanWx forum, James Hyde (wxmeddler)—who’d been mapping my position on the Belize radar—correctly observed at this time that I had to be in the N eyewall—and that the pinhole eye was probably only a couple of miles wide.
Zoomed-in view of BZE radar at 0530Z (12:30 am CDT), showing Ernesto's
tiny eye passing just S of the iCyclone location (marked with red diamond).
I was squarely in the N eyewall at this time and experiencing the lowest
pressure and strongest winds.
Around 1 am, the roaring seemed to be lessening, and the pressure was shooting up as fast as it had dropped. The wind was shifting and rain started blowing into the back of the patio. I knew we'd seen the worst of Ernesto. There was another little spike of wind between 1:40 and 1:50 am, but by 2 am the cyclone had passed.
A tour bus pulled up and dazed passengers climbed out and wandered in. The power was out, but the mood was cheerful as workers checked damage to the building and chatted.
And I started to yawn—started to feel the tension of many days finally easing. It was a pleasant feeling.
As soon as it seemed safe to go outside, I went to the car—parked at the edge of the parking lot, alongside the highway—and snuggled up against the driver's seat. I was wet and cold but I didn't care. It felt good to fall into a deep sleep.
I awoke to a grey, rainy morning.
The restaurant’s owner and his workers were up and about, inspecting the damage to the property—which wasn't too bad.
Some parts of the roof had been torn off and scattered across the grounds. The metal signpost out front had been bent 45 degrees by strong NE winds. There were downed wires and branches strewn around, and trees that had been full and lush the night before looked curiously burnt and wintery—they’d lost lots of foliage. All this having been said, the building was basically intact.
Photos showing 1) roof damage, 2) defoliated trees, 3) bent metal sign, and 4) the restaurant
(viewed from across the parking lot).
It seemed like a solid Cat-1 impact—pretty strong given we weren’t on the open coast.
One interesting thing I noticed was that the hurricane's impact was quite localized. Heading back up the highway toward Playa Del Carmen, I saw bent and broken signs within the first few miles, and the palms along the road in Limones were all bent toward the W, suggesting strong E winds had occurred—but at about the halfway point between Buena Vista and Felipe Carrillo Puerto, I could no longer see clear evidence of a hurricane impact.
Ernesto had been a strong but exceedingly small cyclone—a mere pinprick in the night.
10. Meteorological Points
Ernesto was an interesting and unique hurricane—for a few reasons:
First off, this was the smallest hurricane I've been in. I thought Jova of 2011 was small—well, this one was smaller. The cyclone consisted of a tightly-wound, tiny core embedded in a large area of inclement but rather unimpressive weather.
As the storm approached my location, strong winds didn't really kick up until the center was maybe 30 or 45 minutes away, and the worst of it was over within 30 minutes of the center's closest approach. Destructive winds didn't last much more than about an hour at my location. Looking at the damage afterward, there seemed to be little evidence of a storm once I got halfway up the highway to Felipe Carrillo Puerto—approximately 20 n mi N of Buena Vista.
Based on radar, the eye was extremely small—only a few miles wide—and the edge of it missed me to the S by maybe a mile or two. This put me squarely in the intense N eyewall.
Pressure & Gradient
My lowest pressure was 975.0 mb (with the barometer calibrated for an altitude of 51 ft), measured at 12:34 am CDT. Data were collected with a Kestrel 4500.
Judging from my barogram, the air-pressure gradient was extremely steep. Since the pressure dropped as fast as ~1 mb/2 min (0.5 mb/min), and the storm was moving ~15 mph at the time, this means the gradient was probably ~2 mb/mi near the center.
It’s always hard to estimate winds, but I believe Ernesto inflicted a strong Cat-1 impact at my location, which was well inland (~35 n mi from the open coast). It had a lot more bite than all of the Cat 1s I've been in—and even some of the 2s. Ernesto put Cat-1 Irene and Cat-2 Gustav to shame, and I don't remember Cat-2 Ike's winds having such bite. But this is all subjective.
Assessing the intensity from another angle… Assuming my pressure reading of 975.0 mb is accurate, the central pressure (~5 n mi away away) would have been a few mb lower (assuming 2 mb/mi, as suggested by my pressure trace). Given this, a central pressure in the low 970s seems reasonable. Taking into account other key factors—the extremely small RMW (probably ~5 n mi), strengthening trend at landfall, spectacular satellite presentation (with a distinct pinhole eye that lasted well inland), solid eyewall as seen on Belize radar (despite distance and attenuation), and deep-tropical latitude—it seems reasonable to suspect winds at landfall may have been higher than the operationally-assessed 75 kt. But of course that's not for me to decide. :)
Addendum (06 December 2012)
The NHC released the official Hurricane Ernesto report today, and the cyclone has been upgraded to Cat 2 (85 kt) for the Yucatan landfall, partially because of my pressure reading. From the report:
The 85-kt estimated landfall and peak intensity of Ernesto is based on a blend of Dvorak intensity estimates of 77 and 90 kt from 0000 UTC and 0300 UTC 8 August 2012, respectively; the 90-kt Dvorak estimate at landfall was performed by TAFB during the post-storm analysis. The improved structure and continued intensification of Ernesto through landfall is also supported by two minimum pressure observations in Mexico. An automated observing site on the Banco Chinchorro Islands reported a minimum pressure of 979.4 mb (Table 2) at 0100 UTC 8 August as the center passed over the area. This was 5 mb lower than the minimum pressure reported by reconnaissance aircraft 8 h earlier. A storm chaser located inland near Buena Vista, Mexico, reported a minimum pressure of 975.0 mb (Table 2) at 0534 UTC while still experiencing strong winds. Based on these data, the estimated minimum pressure at landfall is 973 mb.
Hours after landfall, Ernesto still had a spectacularly distinct pinhole eye.
11. Big Thanks
This chase was Scott Brownfield's masterpiece—a challenge well met.
On most chases, navigation is collaborative—he and I look at it together, discuss it, etc. With Ernesto, this was not the case. In those final hours, I was in a desolate area, in the darkness, unable to view radar imagery because my data connection was so bad. I was a blind man—Scott was my eyes. He had to singlehandedly decide where I should be—and he made good choices in tough circumstances.
Thanks also to Adam Moyer and Steve Ayers, who helped behind the scenes, especially in those final hours—and a big thanks to James Hyde for his excellent radar analysis and mapping.
As is so often the case, chasing this hurricane was a team effort.