Speed demons

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Friday, January 17, 2014

“As you warm the climate, you basically raise the speed limit on hurricanes” — Kerry A. Emanuel, atmospheric scientist, MIT.

MAKE that cyclones and typhoons. What’s in a name? A hurricane by any other name is just as deadly, especially if the basis of comparison is Haiyan. And so far, the Philippines has the dubious bragging right of being hit last year that topped them all. Super typhoon Haiyan a.k.a. Yolanda.

Prof. Ivor Van Heerden, marine scientist and disaster specialist, warned in Discovery Channel’s Megastorm: World’s Biggest Typhoon, “Catastrophes such as Typhoon Haiyan are going to occur again, and again, and again.”
Haiyan, or Yolanda as Filipinos know it, is the foretaste of catastrophes to come.


And well the world should heed the words of Dr. Van Heerden. The South African-born former deputy director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center created a hurricane modeling program at LSU.

Van Heerden was one of the most persistent voices warning of the inevitable effects of a major hurricane on the Louisiana coast. He claims that his warnings on storm surges during on a previous exercise were ignored, which may have contributed to the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

And future typhoons might equally be of the killer type. With climate change, we can expect more unusually warm subsurface Pacific waters around the Philippines. As the weather get warmer, the western Pacific will experience rising sea levels, and more storm surges.

Timothy P. Marshall, an American structural engineer and meteorologist, explained that typhoons have arms that spiral around, getting faster and faster like typhoon winds that come in toward the center. “The maximum winds are in the eyewall. The winds are blowing in the opposite direction—very intense.”

Marshall’s expertise is on damage analysis, particularly from wind and other weather phenomena. He is also a pioneering storm chaser and was editor of Storm Track magazine. He is often featured on science documentaries on The Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel, National Geographic, The History Channel, and The Weather Channel.

I-I Lin, a specialist in typhoon-ocean interactions at National Taiwan University in Taipei, concurs. Typhoons draw heat from the ocean for the energy that generates their winds. Typically, as a storm’s winds increase, they stir up deeper, cooler ocean waters that temper its strength. This cooling effect “is nature’s brake to stop typhoons from intensifying.”

If one looks at the documentaries, satellite maps show a thickening layer of warm water (red) that increased the storm-driving heat potential (blue) at the latitudes that Haiyan traversed.

Lin further explains: “The warmer the subsurface layer, the faster the moving speed, the smaller the cooling effect,” Lin says. “It’s like a car without a brake, only an accelerator.”

The warm bulge in the western North Pacific is the result of stronger easterly trade winds, or what Filipinos call amihan.

This phenomenon also aggravated Haiyan’s storm surge, the main killer. In addition to blowing heat westward, the winds are literally piling up water in the western Pacific, where the cumulative sea-level rise over the past 20 years exceeds 20 centimeters.

“It is likely that the elevated sea level contributed to the flood and inundation problems” in the Philippines,” says Bo Qiu, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii, Manoa.

The year 2014 bodes not more of the same. But worse. This early, can the country cope with a stronger version of Haiyan? What can Negros Occidental do to prepare for the worst after Haiyan? Let’s never say we weren’t warned of speed demons.



Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on January 17, 2014.


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