In the wake of the catastrophic destruction by Super Typhoon Haiyan across the archipelago of the Philippines, a frantic international effort has descended on the nation to clear roads and deliver emergency supplies desperately needed by injured and traumatized survivors.
Even as Haiyan swelled in savage force out in the Pacific with the Philippines in its sights, many people expected the worst. Any country would have been challenged by this Category 5 typhoon, but the fragile Philippines was especially ill-equipped to cope.
According to the annual Germanwatch Global Climate Watch Index 2014 released this month, in 2012 Haiti, the Philippines, and Pakistan topped the list of countries most affected by extreme storms and weather events. In the decade 1993-2012, Honduras, Myanmar and Haiti were the top countries most affected by extreme weather.
The report, which bases its analysis on data obtained from the renowned globally-operated Munich Re insurance company, was presented at the UN climate talks in Warsaw earlier this month. It stated that of the ten most affected countries during that decade, eight were developing countries and only two were developed nations.
In 2012 Hurricane Sandy wreaked its destructive force on the U.S. east coast but along the way it devastated Haiti leaving 200,000 people homeless and destroying much of the tiny nation’s crops. In the face of Sandy, Haitians were still struggling to recover from Hurricane Isaac just a few months earlier as well as the devastating 2010 earthquake.
According to the GCWI report, globally from 1993-2012 more than 530,000 people died as a result of 15,000 extreme weather events with losses amounting to more than US$2.5 trillion. Those events included tropical and winter storms, hail, tornadoes, storm surges, rainfall leading to floods and landslides, extreme cold, wildfires and droughts.
With sustained winds of over 312 kilometres per hour and moving at a speed of 50 km/hour, Haiyan was the most powerful super typhoon to make landfall in recorded history, beating out Hurricane Camille which tore into Mississippi in 1969 at just over 300 km/h.
At least three ingredients make a hurricane – a deep ocean with warm surface water, a low pressure area and a calm upper atmosphere. Winds near the water’s surface spiral around the low pressure region as moist warm air rises. The moisture condenses into drops, empowering the circulating winds. Thunderstorms form and clouds rise into the lighter atmosphere.
A cloud-free eye forms, possibly 60 km across, and a massive wave forms beneath it. In the eye, air is sucked upwards faster than it can be replaced below, lowering the atmospheric pressure beneath it. So the eye sucks at the ocean itself, drawing up a bulge of water perhaps six metres high that travels with the hurricane to become the storm surge.
At 119 km/hour the storm becomes a category 1 hurricane, typhoon, or cyclone depending on its geographic location. The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale at the National Hurricane Center is a 1 to 5 rating based on a hurricane’s sustained wind speed with estimates of potential damage.
Usually on landfall, the friction from the land base slow hurricanes down. But in Super Typhoon Haiyan’s case it hit the Philippines at full force and full speed, rushing across the island chain en route to Vietnam in record time.
Many worry that climate change and warming oceans will spawn more frequent catastrophic storms like Haiyan. A World Bank 2012 study titled Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4 Degree C Warmer World Must Be Avoided highlights the extent of potential threats the world and vulnerable people in poor countries will face. Already, according to a Bloomberg Industries’ report, Haiyan is expected to leave an economic impact of $14 billion.