Pacific: Humanitarians prepare for more extreme weather events

14 November, 2013
8 November 2013, Kayangel, Palau: Super Typhoon Haiyan swept across Palau during the early hours of 7 November. Its centre passed about 15 km north of Kayangel, the northernmost state of the archipelago. Credit: Office of the President, Republic of Palau
8 November 2013, Kayangel, Palau: Super Typhoon Haiyan swept across Palau during the early hours of 7 November. Its centre passed about 15 km north of Kayangel, the northernmost state of the archipelago. Credit: Office of the President, Republic of Palau

Super Typhoon Haiyan, labeled the biggest storm ever recorded, began its life as a cluster of thunderstorms in the warm northwest Pacific waters of the Federated States of Micronesia. Originally designated 31W, meteorological services began issuing alerts about a tropical depression tracking west-northwest at 25 kilometres per hour on 2 November.

The system was named Tropical Storm Haiyan as it traversed the small islands of Chuuk State and, by the time it reached Yap, was upgraded to a typhoon with winds around 190 kilometres per hour. But as the typhoon tracked towards Palau on 6 November, it intensified to a Super Typhoon with storm surges of up to five metres and wind speeds of over 220 kilometres per hour.

“The rapid intensification occurred primarily because of the extremely warm sea surface temperatures in the region at this time,” said Neville Koop, a meteorologist and climate advisor for the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme.

“While the warm seas provided the fuel, very favourable middle and upper level conditions in the atmosphere assisted the development by providing the opportunity for the intensifying circulation at the surface vent air at peak efficiency, allowing the eye to stay vertical and well developed as evidenced by the strong clear eye seen in many images.”

Increasingly severe weather events

While Micronesia escaped relatively unscathed, Haiyan devastated the island of Kayangel in Palau and caused significant damage in the capital Koror before striking the Philippines. As Palau was already recovering from Typhoon Bopha less than 12 months prior, there are concerns weather events are becoming more intense and more frequent due to the impacts of climate change.

“We have to accept that storms of Category 5 intensity in November and December this late in the [north Pacific] season are not unusual now and may become a regular occurrence,” said Mr Koop.

“In all likelihood this system would have occurred had climate change not become a factor, but it is very likely that the extreme intensity of this particular storm was influenced by the much warmer than usual sea temperatures which can be directly related to human induced climate change.”

Mr Koop also explained that the sea level in the western Pacific region, close to the Philippine islands, has risen by nearly 20 centimetres over recent decades – over four times the global average. This meant the storm surge accompanying Typhoon Haiyan was more dangerous than it otherwise would have been.

Greater collaboration needed

Sune Gudnitz, head of OCHA’s Regional Office in the Pacific, says the region is among the most vulnerable to climate change, and closer collaboration is needed to break down the silos between climate science, disaster risk reduction and humanitarian action.

“Humanitarians must establish closer links with meteorologists and climate scientists to better understand the increasingly severe weather impacting the areas in which we work,” said Mr Gudnitz.

“Early warning from climatic events and disaster resilience are areas that we need to strengthen as part of humanitarian action to better support Pacific Island governments before and after disasters.”

Vulnerability of small island states

Considered to be on the frontline of climate change, severe weather patterns and rising sea levels are threatening the very existence of small island states.

In September 2013, the President of Palau, Tommy Esang Remengesau Jr., made an impassioned plea to world leaders gathered at the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly for urgent action on climate change.

"Our global warming doomsday is already set in stone if world leaders fail to act," Mr Remengesau said.

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