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Is Climate Change to Blame for More Intense Hurricanes and Typhoons?

Climate

With hurricanes and typhoons becoming more intense, we wanted to find out why. What’s going on and what’s the difference between a hurricane and a typhoon in the first place? What kind of damage do these storms cause? And what role does climate change play?

Meteorologically speaking, hurricanes and typhoons are largely one in the same phenomenon, but are given different names depending where in the world they occur.

We answer these questions and more below in our list of most frequently asked questions about hurricanes and typhoons, along with a closer look at how these storms affect the Philippines in particular.

What’s the Difference Between a Hurricane and a Typhoon?

Meteorologically speaking, hurricanes and typhoons are largely one in the same phenomenon, but are given different names depending where in the world they occur. Both hurricanes and typhoons are strong tropical cyclones, which are storms that form over warm ocean waters, have a well defined center of circulation and feed off of heat energy from the ocean.

Once the tropical storm’s sustained winds reach a certain level of intensity (33 meters per second), it becomes a tropical cyclone. If the storm forms or moves through the North Atlantic Ocean or the eastern Pacific Ocean, it’s a hurricane, named after the Mayan god Huracán. If a tropical cyclone forms or moves through the western Pacific Ocean, it’s a typhoon, a name which originates from the Chinese words “tung” or east and “fung” or wind. There’s one other caveat: if the storm forms or moves through the southwestern Pacific Ocean or portions of the Indian Ocean, it’s a cyclone or cyclonic storm.

What are the Biggest Threats of a Hurricane or a Typhoon?

It’s no secret that hurricanes and typhoons can cause severe damage to coastal areas and the people who live there. Typically, the stronger the storm, the more danger they pose to anything or anyone in its path.

One of the most dangerous threats caused by hurricanes and typhoons is storm surge, which can send water several feet above the normal tide crashing onto the shore. Typhoon Haiyan, known locally in the Philippines as Super Typhoon Yolanda and Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina in the U.S. are three examples of where storm surge destroyed many homes, businesses, trees and power lines, making entire areas uninhabitable for weeks or months and resulting in many lost lives. Another major threat caused by these storms is torrential rainfall, which can cause fresh water flooding in areas farther away from the coast.

Is There a Link Between Climate Change and Hurricanes and Typhoons?

We hear this question often and the subject continues to be studied closely by climate scientists. Research shows that hurricanes and typhoons are likely to become more intense with stronger winds as the planet, including ocean temperatures, continues to warm. In the northwestern Pacific Ocean specifically, typhoons have become about 10 percent more damaging since the 1970s and even stronger storms are expected there as climate change worsens.

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And then there’s sea-level rise. Rising sea levels in oceans around the world increase the risk for higher storm surge from hurricanes and typhoons and more severe flooding is likely to occur. And as the Earth’s temperature continues to rise, more moisture builds up in the atmosphere, which may lead to heavier downpours and more floods during future storms. In a nutshell, hurricanes and typhoons are expected to become more intense and likely more damaging thanks to climate change.

What Were Some of the World’s Strongest Hurricanes or Typhoons?

A few major storms stand out. One of the deadliest tropical cyclones in recorded history occurred in the Bay of Bengal, which hit Bangladesh in 1970. That storm, known as the Great Bhola Cyclone, led to between 300,000 and 500,000 causalities. More recently in October of 2015, Hurricane Patricia became one of the strongest hurricanes on record in the Western Hemisphere as sustained winds reached nearly 200 miles per hour (320 kilometers per hour) off Mexico’s west coast. Thankfully, the storm weakened before it made landfall still as a Category 5 hurricane near Cuixmala, a resort area in the state of Jalisco, later that day.

There’s also Typhoon Haiyan, which is believed to be one of the strongest typhoons on record at the time it made landfall in the Philippines on Nov. 7, 2013. This storm had winds close to 195 miles per hour (315 kilometers per hour) as it approached Guiuan on the Philippine island of Samar.

What Makes the Philippines so Vulnerable to Typhoons?

Put simply, the Philippines’ geography and development puts the nation at greater risk to typhoons. The Philippines is made up of more than 7,100 islands and approximately 22,549 miles (36,289 kilometers) of coastline, with more than 60 percent of its population estimated to be living in the coastal zone. This proximity to coastal areas for the majority of the population—combined with unsustainable development trends, environmental deterioration and high levels of poverty—make the island nation that much more vulnerable to typhoons.Climate change is expected to increase the Philippines’ risk to these dangerous storms.

With rising sea levels and the severity of typhoons forecasted to increase thanks to climate change, there’s significantly more risk of threats like storm surges and flooding. But it isn’t all bad news. Let’s face it: disasters are bound to occur—that’s Mother Nature at work. But it’s our responsibility to take action to prevent these types of storms from getting worse and causing more harm by putting an end to climate change.

We have the practical, clean-energy solutions to do it and power our lives without destroying our planet, but we need your help to make policymakers take action. Ready to do your part and make a difference in fighting climate change?

Sign up to learn more about becoming a Climate Reality Leader and we’ll keep you updated with resources and information about upcoming trainings. As a trained Climate Reality Leader, you’ll join influencers like actor Calum Worthy and the UN’s Christiana Figueres—who played a critical role in facilitating the historic Paris agreement—in inspiring communities to act and build support for solutions across the planet.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

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At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.