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Science. Communication. Community.

One of Earth’s strongest storms. Ever.

Yet another devastating storm ups the ante in the global conversation about climate change. Was this powerful typhoon a symptom or just another part of nature? What can we do?

by Kelly April Tyrrell

Typhoon Haiyan over the Pacific//NASA

Typhoon Haiyan over the Pacific//NASA

It’s being called by NASA one of Earth’s strongest storms. Ever.

A monstrous typhoon, with a Chinese name that means sea bird, barreled into the Philippines on Friday, causing devastation not yet fully realized.

As Typhoon Haiyan bore down on the southeast Asian archipelago, the US. Navy Joint Typhoon Warning Center recorded wind gusts as high as 235 miles per hour, with sustained winds of 195 miles per hour.

A Florida-based weather researcher, Brian McNoldy, Tweeted that the storm had reached “perfection:” the highest-possible intensity rating for a typhoon, hurricane or cyclone — 8.0.

As the storm made landfall, weather experts in the Philippines recorded 147 mph maximum sustained winds and gusts of up to 170 mph. Filipinos call the storm Yolanda.

Reports of complete devastation, of entire towns leveled, of areas rescuers have not yet been able to reach and death tolls reaching higher than 10,000 continue to emerge from the country. It can be difficult to even wrap your mind around the tragic event.

It also became a call to action at the UN Climate Change Conference that began in Warsaw, Poland Monday. A goal of the conference is to set global priorities for mitigating human-driven climate change.

But though the scientific consensus overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that climate change is occurring and human factors are driving that change, the topic of storms like Haiyan is less settled.

Impassioned UN delegate from the Philippines, Yeb Sano, was quick to link the massive storm to climate change, The Guardian reports:

“We cannot sit and stay helpless staring at this international climate stalemate. It is now time to take action. We need an emergency climate pathway,” Sano said.

He challenged other world leaders and climate skeptics to visit his country for evidence.

“What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness,” he announced to the 190 delegates in attendance. “The climate crisis is madness. We can stop this madness. Right here in Warsaw.”

For Sano, the intense storm was proof enough to convince him that climate change — driven at an accelerated pace by human behavior — is a devastatingly real problem warranting global attention now, if not yesterday.

“Science tells us that simply, climate change will mean more intense tropical storms,” Sano said. “As the Earth warms up, that would include the oceans. The energy that is stored in the waters off the Philippines will increase the intensity of typhoons and the trend we now see is that more destructive storms will be the new norm.”

Graphic showing the total amount of heat energy available for Super Typhoon Haiyan to absorb, not just on the surface, but integrated through the water column. Deeper, warmer pools of water are colored purple, though any region colored from pink to purple has sufficient energy to fuel storm intensification. The dotted line represents the best-track and forecast data as of 16:00 UTC on Nov. 7.//NOAA

Graphic showing the total amount of heat energy available for Super Typhoon Haiyan to absorb, not just on the surface, but integrated through the water column. Deeper, warmer pools of water are colored purple, though any region colored from pink to purple has sufficient energy to fuel storm intensification. The dotted line represents the best-track and forecast data as of 16:00 UTC on Nov. 7.//NOAA

The problem is, science has been unable to tell us whether events like Haiyan are the result of climate change.

Taken as single weather events, even the most terrifyingly destructive storms cannot be blamed on a global-scale change in climate, which is represented by trends and not single data points on a map.

We simply aren’t there yet.

“Globally, there is low confidence in attribution of changes in tropical cyclone activity to human influence,” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded in its most recent report, published in September.

The working group said there is not enough observational evidence and we don’t have reliable methods for understanding the role humans play in influencing these sorts of events.

However, the frequency of intense storms is likely to increase, IPCC projections show. The actual number of storms is not expected to rise and may even decrease, according to the report, but that could vary widely from region to region.

“ . . . Globally, and by the end of the 21st century, we expect global warming to make tropical cyclones (hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones) more intense, and the frequency of the most intense storms (like Haiyan) is expected to increase,” research oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Gabe Vecchi, told Climate Central. “However, we have much less confidence in what global warming should do in each individual basin.”

Other experts reached by Climate Central also say Haiyan could be an example of the kind of storm we might expect to see become more frequent as the climate continues to warm, atmospheric water vapor levels increase and sea levels rise. At the same time, low-lying countries become more vulnerable as their shorelines shrink and storm surges grow.

But Florida’s McNoldy said Haiyan fits into the global scheme just fine, no climate change needed:

“Extremely intense tropical cyclones are rare, but have always been a part of nature — we don’t need to find an excuse for them,” he said.

What satisfaction does that leave us? For people left in the massive wake of powerful storms, like Hurricane Sandy here in the U.S. just a year ago and Typhoon Haiyan now, McNoldy seems to say: These kinds of extreme events are really tragic but we have to live with them because that’s the way it is. We have done nothing to make them happen. We can do nothing to change them.

It leaves us with little satisfaction. But what it does leave us with is a whole lot of potential to continue to study these events in the context of a changing climate. It leaves us a lot of potential to consider how our actions on our planet might play a role in changing it, for better or for worse.

And it leaves us a lot of potential to continue the dialogue and communicate all that we know.

It also means technology like NASA’s Atmospheric Infrared Sounder, launched into Earth’s orbit in May 2002, will continue to play a role in advancing our understanding, and producing powerful images like these:


The two AIRS images, acquired at 8:59 p.m. PST on Nov. 7 (left) and 9:17 a.m. PST on Nov. 8 (right), show the powerful storm in infrared. When the image on the left was acquired, the storm was located 214 miles (344 kilometers) south-southeast of Manila. By the time the image on the right was acquired, the fast-moving storm was already centered west of the Philippines, on a forecast track that will take it to Vietnam. The storm’s coldest cloud-top temperatures are indicated by the brightest shades of purple, and show where Haiyan’s heaviest rainfall was occurring//NASA/JPL-Caltech


About kelly tyrrell

runner. science writer. prairie lover. mountain dreamer.

2 comments on “One of Earth’s strongest storms. Ever.

  1. Pingback: Typhoon Haiyan – One of Earth’s strongest storms ever. | KAT Writes

  2. Kerstin Nordstrom (@DrKerstin)
    November 13, 2013

    One thing that I think you touch on but should be emphasized. While the (perhaps) increasing strength of storms may have to do with climate change (personally I think it does, but of course the data isn’t really there), the strength of storms doesn’t have a huge correlation with overall casualties. Wind and rain, for the most part we can handle. What really matters is storm surge. In the US, we have issues with people building up the coast in areas they frankly shouldn’t be. But more generally, in the world, as our population increases and the water levels rise due to climate change, the issue of storm surge is just going to get worse and worse.

    Essentially we need to be better about 1) not living in vulnerable areas and 2) evacuation of vulnerable areas, even if a storm doesn’t seem excessively strong.

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This entry was posted on November 12, 2013 by in Policy, Research and tagged , , .
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