June 10, 2016

Pacific Super Storms of the Future

There are certain absolutes in being human. Regardless of political beliefs, religion, race or nationality; everyone on the planet is affected by the storm cycles in the Pacific Ocean. As surfers on the West Coast we monitor Pacific storm activity religiously. To a surfer in California, 50 knot winds and 30 foot seas off the Aleutian Islands are signs that the surf Gods are happy. Our past El Nino season, now a collection of fond memories and digital content spread across the internet, confirmation of our prayers for winter waves. However, when these wave producing storms make landfall they can be absolutely devastating.

Haiyan Destruction

In early March of 2013 a strange thing happened; Navy Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, the fellow in charge of global security in the Pacific region, declared during an interview at Cambridge hotel that the most imminent threat to the region was not a country or criminal organization but the instability of the climate itself.

While addressing scholars from Harvard and Tufts, Locklear said the significant coastal impact caused by a warming global climate “is probably the most likely thing that is going to happen… that will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about.’’

“People are surprised sometimes,” he added, describing the reaction to his assessment. “You have the real potential here in the not-too-distant future of nations displaced by rising sea level. Certainly weather patterns are more severe than they have been in the past. We are on super typhoon 27 or 28 this year in the Western Pacific. The average is about 17.”

Only 6 months later, Typhoon Hayain, locally known as Super Typhoon Yolanda, devastated the Philippines and parts of Southeast Asia. This storm was one of the strongest recorded in history, with a low pressure of 895 millibar, and peak 10 minute sustained winds of 145 miles per hour.

To put this in perspective only two storms have recorded higher sustained wind speeds, and though Super Typhoon Megi made landfall in the Philippines 3 years earlier, it didn’t strike with nearly the concentrated force of Haiyan, which made landfall at peak intensity on November 7th 2013.

Super Typhoon Haiyan from Space
Super Typhoon Haiyan from Space

The devastation was unparalleled, nearly 10,000 people dead or missing. severely impacting another 11 million, many of them left homeless. Entire communities wiped from coastal areas by the brute force of the Category 5 Typhoon. Given the intensity and track of the storm there was no amount of preparation that could avert crisis. Haiyan was on a death march from its start, tearing across Southeast Asia, and in the process causing nearly $3 billion in damage, scouring the earth in its path.

haiyan destruction

Locklear’s words ringing in the ears of the global political and and scientific communities, a new era and common threat clearly marked: climate change. All to real for the millions of Philippine residents now struggling to survive, cut off from the rest of the world and without clean water, food or shelter. But Admiral Locklear didn’t make the call on a whim, we’ve known now for decades about the increasing intensity, frequency and unpredictability of the storm cycles in our oceans.

Rising levels of greenhouse gasses heat the planet and oceans

As water temperatures and sea levels rise, more and more energy is contained in the Pacific, the furnace for our global storm systems. This energy is channeled into increasingly frequent and more powerful hurricanes and typhoons. Just last year the strongest storm ever recorded in the eastern Pacific struck Mexico so late in the season we were already in our Halloween costumes.

In similar fashion Cyclone Tracy, a tiny and at the time unique tropical cyclone that wreaked havoc on the city of Darwin in Australia, made landfall on Christmas Eve, 1974. This storm, like a microscopic Haiyan, left the city of Darwin homeless, without power, shelter or clean water. They were entirely cut off from society, most Australians busy unwrapping presents Christmas Day, oblivious to the severe situation their countrymen in Darwin faced. At the time Tracy was hailed an anomaly, it became the case study and global learning experience for how we respond to communities in the path of hurricanes.  Over 40 years have past and the Christmas Day Cyclone is still scrutinized by scholars, history buffs and weather nerds alike.

Darwin on Christmas Day 1974
Darwin, Australia. Christmas Day 1974

With the city of Darwin becoming the proverbial canary in the coal mine, ocean temperatures, carbon levels in the atmosphere and sea level have only been rising ever since. Each year we’ve seen longer and more intense storm seasons around the globe. Some wave producing wonders like Hurricane Marie, others terrifying machines of destruction like Super Typhoon Haiyan. One thing we know for certain; the global community as a whole will feel the effect of the Pacific as we march on into the future.


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