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Typhoon Haiyan: a recurring phenomenon?

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Typhoon Haiyan: a recurring phenomenon?


Philipe Drobinski is research director at the CNRS laboratory in dynamic meteorology of the Pierre-Simon Laplace Institute (IPSL, CNRS/UPMC/UVSQ/CEA/IRD/CNES/Polytechnic/ENS) and assistant professor at the Ecole Polytechnique. A specialist in meteorology, he analyses the Haiyan Typhoon that swept across the Philippines on November 8, 2013, with winds of over 300 km/h. 


How can we describe the typhoon Haiyan that hit the Philippines?


We have just never seen anything like it. This is the most powerful typhoon ever recorded. However, typhoons themselves not a rare phenomenon since we are in the middle of hurricane season.

2013 had few hurricanes in the Atlantic and the Pacific was more prone to typhoons. The terminology used is different depending on the region, but in fact we are talking about the same phenomenon.

Is this a reoccurring phenomenon?


The reliable databases on hurricanes began in the 50s. The oldest measures of good quality were taken in the Atlantic. Several U.S. laboratories analyze cyclones. Their intensity is categorized in five levels and we also calculate the return time, that is to say, the time between two events. The stronger the hurricane, the longer return time.

Haiyan is the strongest hurricane ever recorded since Camille in 1969, where winds had also blown at over 300 km/h. The return of this kind of phenomenon is 60 or 70 years.

This is an exceptional event, but here is no reason to think that this won’t happen again.

Can these storms be predicted?


Cyclones form out at sea when temperatures are high. The heat evaporation becomes the cyclone’s energy.

Cyclones in categories 4 and 5 are exceptional phenomena and it is important to know what path they will take, considering the damage they can cause. The large-scale predictions are fairly good especially since these phenomena are observable in real time, via satellites that can measure speed. However, the accuracy of their trajectory is more difficult to define. And the stakes are high, both in terms of infrastructure and for the people who may need to be evacuated. This is particularly true in developing countries that have had rapid urbanization of their coasts. The populations in these areas are more vulnerable than, for example, the United States where more emergency shelter is available.

Surveys from the air can be done especially above the cyclone to measure characteristics such as temperature, humidity and wind speed. These targeted studies enable us to learn about a weather forecasting model using the best information and to hope for a better prediction of the storm’s path when it touches down on the continent.


Tacloban City in the Philippines before and after Typhoon Haiyan on November 8, 2013. ©Digital Globe/Google Earth 


Philippe Drobinski: 33+ (0)1 69 33 51 42 philippe.drobinski(@)lmd.polytechnique.fr