Super Typhoon Haiyan(Yolanda) is The Most Powerful Tropical Cyclone Ever to Hit the Planet

Take a look back at the Strongest Super Cyclone Ever to hit the Planet


The massive typhoon striking the Philippines is both big and late in the season.

A fairly normal typhoon season in the western Pacific has spawned a real monster—supertyphoon Haiyan—which made landfall in the Philippines at around 5 a.m. local time.

Super Typhoon Haiyan: Why Monster Storm Is So Unusual


The storm, described by some as "tropical cyclone perfection" and "off the charts," packed sustained winds of 195 miles (315 kilometers per hour), with gusts as strong as 235 miles (380 kilometers per hour). Experts predict the typhoon—also known as Yolanda in the Philippines—could end up being the strongest storm to ever make landfall since modern record-keeping began, according to The Washington Post.

"It's knocking our socks off," said Jim Kossin, an atmospheric scientist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climatic Data Center. (Related: "What's a Typhoon, Anyway?")

But what happens to create such a megastorm?

There are several environmental factors that play into how strong a storm can get, Kossin explained. The storms thrive on warm water that goes deep into the ocean and consistent wind speeds in the atmosphere, he said.

"When all those things align in a certain way, then you're going to get something like [Haiyan]," Kossin added.

More Storms on the Horizon

Haiyan is a strange storm in both its strength and because it comes very late in the typhoon season, which officially ended November 1, said Colin Price, head of the geophysical, atmospheric, and planetary sciences department at Tel Aviv University in Israel.

Although the overall number of hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons—all the same weather phenomenon—hasn't increased over the past decades, the proportion of more intense storms has, Price explained. (See "Typhoon, Hurricane, Cyclone: What's the Difference?")

"All typhoons feed off the warm ocean waters," he said. The moisture-laden air above these regions is the fuel that fires the engines in these storms.

"We've seen in the past decades the oceans are warming up, likely due to climate change," said Price. "So warmer oceans will give us more energy for these storms, likely resulting in more intense storms."

Haiyan dipped down near the Equator, where it likely picked up some more steam, before heading to the Philippines, he said.

It's similar to what happened when Hurricane Katrina picked up steam as it passed over the warm pool of water in the Gulf of Mexico in August 2005.


Super Typhoon Haiyan Headed Toward Philippines


Super typhoon Haiyan looms as this year's strongest ocean storm.

Super Typhoon Haiyan is one of the strongest, most dangerous typhoons in recent history and is expected to remain a super typhoon over the next 24 hours.

A super typhoon expected to slam into the Philippines on Friday appears on track to become the strongest such storm to develop this year, meteorologists warn.

With wind speeds exceeding 190 miles an hour (305 kilometers an hour), super typhoon Haiyan—known as Yolanda in the Philippines—is the equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean.

Hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons are all the same rotating ocean storm phenomenon; scientists just call them different names depending on where they occur. [See "Typhoon, Hurricane, Cyclone: What's the Difference?"]

Forecasters predict Haiyan will  make landfall on Friday morning in the archipelago's central islands, many of which are still recovering from a 7.2-magnitude earthquake that struck the region last month.

"If Haiyan holds its strength and makes landfall in the Philippines, it would definitely be the strongest typhoon to hit the country this year, and that's saying a lot," said Chris Velden, a hurricane expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Our advanced satellite algorithms that estimate intensity are hitting values rarely seen.”

Typhoon Season

In the northwestern Pacific, typhoons most commonly develop from late June through December. After a slow start this season, typhoon formation began to pick up in October.

"It's gotten very active again, and now it's back to where it should be, with several typhoons being spawned a month," said Velden, whose team uses satellites to track developing storms around the globe.

Officials in the Philippines have already begun evacuating people from coastal and landslide-prone regions of the country’s central islands and put emergency workers on alert in preparation for Haiyan's landfall, according to Reuters.

'Oversized Tornadoes'

On average 20 typhoons hit the Philippines every year. According to the aid agency Plan International, Haiyan is the 25th typhoon to enter the Philippines Area of Responsibility (PAR) this year.


Why the Philippines is Being Battered By Yet Another Fearsome Typhoon


The country sees an average of 20 typhoons a year thanks to its position in the Pacific Ocean.  

For storms like hurricanes and typhoons, as in real estate, it's all about location, location, location. Unfortunately for the Philippines—which is being battered by Typhoon Koppu—the island nation is in a prime spot to get hit with an average of 20 typhoons a year.

Koppu made landfall early Sunday morning local time as a strong category 3 with winds nearing 124 miles (200 kilometers) per hour. The storm, known as Lando in the Philippines, toppled trees and buildings, killing a 14-year-old boy and a 62-year-old woman. Torrential rains have flooded entire towns and displaced tens of thousands of people.

Evaporation of warm water fuels these disastrous storms, which are alternately known as hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones. Water temperatures around the Philippines regularly top 82°F (28°C), which is the temperature that typhoons need to get going.

The Philippines sits in what scientists call the "warm pool" in the Western Pacific, with nothing between the country and open water. (Learn why the Philippines is so disaster prone.)

Those warm sea surface temperatures mean more water evaporating into the atmosphere, loading a hurricane with more energy, said Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist at MIT in an earlier interview.

Forecasters predict the storm will stick around until Wednesday of this week before turning north towards Taiwan. 

What Makes Koppu Special

The fact that Koppu is such a slow storm means it has more time to power up. The typhoon will lose steam once it's separated from warm water, although forecasters expect Koppu to intensify again as it reemerges over the ocean north of the Philippines later this week.

All that atmospheric churning translates to turmoil in the ocean. Typhoons drag up cold seawater, which can put a damper on things. "A lot of hurricanes don't get as strong as they could because of this," Emanuel said.

Another component that can put a stop to these fierce storms is wind shear. Those upper atmospheric winds bring drier air into the center of a hurricane, which is "like throwing cold water on a fire," said Emanuel. "It just throttles the whole engine back."

Wind Isn't The Whole Story

While hurricanes are categorized based on their wind speeds, wind isn't typically the most dangerous part of such storms. "It's the storm surge," said the atmospheric scientist—that bulge of water built up in front of a cyclone or hurricane courtesy of its winds.

It's the number one killer in hurricanes, Emanuel said. "That's what killed people in Katrina; it's what killed people in Sandy and in Haiyan."

Sandy's storm surge flooded New York City's subway system and runways at the city's airports while damaging New Jersey's transportation system. In total, the storm surge caused $400 million in damage.

Super typhoon Haiyan—the strongest typhoon on record to hit land—sent a wall of water nearly 25 feet (7.5 meters) high onto the Philippine Island of Leyte in November 2013. The storm surge ripped apart buildings and washed away entire towns. (Learn why this monster storm was so unusual.)

Emanuel likened a storm surge to a tsunami. One just happens to be caused by earthquakes (tsunamis), while the other is generated by hurricanes.

Flash flooding caused by intense rains is also a major killer, Emanuel said. "Hurricane Mitch [in 1998] killed 12,000 people, and it was all from flash flooding."

Forecasters are predicting up to 40 inches (102 centimeters) of rain in some parts of the Philippines. The flooding has gotten so bad that rescuers have been unable to reach towns and villages in need. The fear now is that because the ground is so saturated with water entire hillsides could collapse.

The worrisome thing though, is that climate change will likely increase the frequency of "the high-end hurricanes," Emanuel said. Those categorized as threes or above (the scale tops out at five).

And those powerful storms have the potential to produce a lot of rain, flooding, and strong storm surges.

Super typhoon Koppu is the northern hemisphere's 19th category four or five tropical cyclone. The storm has set the record for the most such storms in one year. The previous record was 18 in 2004.



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