Haiyan, the world’s most powerful storm, offers lessons

By | Science & Technology
Photo © 2013 JMA/EUMETSAT

Typhoons or hurricanes are elevated storms patterns commonly occurring in the Pacific Ocean within areas of warm tropical waters. The Pacific acts almost as birthing ground for these events. Often here warm water and cold fronts energetically combine spawning numerous typhoons, many of which quickly diminish causing little distribution. The particularly warm seas surrounding the Philippines generate some of the bigger category 4 and 5 storms, and these more frequently escalate towards the land. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina passed through a densely populated region of America. It is reasonable to assume that this was the first category 5 storm to be witnessed extensively in modern times. The media closely followed the situation, and veraciously highlighted the effects that these storms can have on land and humans. With this in mind, the Philippines can receive storms twice a year matching Hurricane Katrina, forcing it become an increasingly resilient nation against tropical storms. However, the most recent typhoon, called Haiyan, has somewhat taken the region by surprise, becoming the most powerful storm the area has ever encountered.

The specific magnitude of Haiyan has been attributed to an increased seasonal likelihood of storms in general, and a collection of enhancive factors. As the storm made landfall, it simultaneously reached its peak intensity, exacting maximum exposure to the Philippine coastline. As the storm approached the island it brought 13-foot storm surge affecting one of the larger bays particularly as it funnelled the surging waters inland towards the city of Tacloban. Haiyan may have possibly been the strongest typhoon to ever make landfall, yet it remains somewhat of a mystery.

Many years prior to this event the U.S Navy would fly an outfitted plane into Pacific storm fronts, and this method could accurately record wind speeds and barometric pressure. However, budget constraints ended this practice decades ago, leaving wind speed to be estimated through satellite telemetry. This technique calculated Haiyan to have had wind speeds of between 190-195 mph, whilst John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist of Texas A&M University, claims wind speed to have reached an astonishing 230 mph.

Without a competent method of data collection meteorologist may have to access a well of information collected by amateurs. To some, large storms possess an allure. People who actively travel into these storms are known as storm chasers, and are a community of people ranging from hobbyists to pursuers of scientific exploration. People were reported to have been seen travelling into the city of Tacloban prior to the storm with cameras and scientific instrument. Though inadvisable, this activity may provide intimate details about storm in the absence of conventional methods. To some, Haiyan could be perceived as a research opportunity, or even the pursuance of curiosity, yet little by little analysis of storm data pushes toward typhoon prediction capabilities, promoting increased forewarning and ultimately saving lives.

Currently the Philippines needs aid. Recovery is hampered by the inaccessible nature of a now heavily flooded area. Communities have become isolated and simple amenities such as food and clean water are in uttermost need. In 2011, the Philippines made a powerful ally in Japan after it was shook by magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami, and aid was sent over to assist in the countries rescue and recovery. A sense of camaraderie was forged and Japan has begun to return the favor, providing a team of 25 medical workers and relief experts to assist the country. Team leader of the Japanese medical team, Kenzo Iwakami, stated how he will always remember the assistance provided by the Philippines in 2011, echoing the prevailing Japanese public opinion. 400 international health workers have now reached the country and are beginning to distribute medical supplies whilst access is improved. Presently planes to the most affected city, Tacloban, remain intermittently suspended due to remaining weather conditions. The speed that aid can reach this site is imperative to the long-term recovery of the Philippines.

Though the focus of this operation is rightly towards aid, rescue and recovery, we should also focus on learning more about weather such as this. Research should be supported in these regions, as the current response to category 5 storms clearly remains relatively ineffective.

After the initial aid provided by Japan, to what extent could these veterans of extreme weather provide assistance with the storm proofing of the Philippines? How can other countries contribute to knowledge and preparedness to lessen the effects of future natural occurances?

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