In 1520, when Ferdinand Magellan’s little fleet emerged from the storm-whipped straits of the tip of South America into a vast ocean to the west, it seemed so peaceful to him that he named it “Pacific Ocean.”
The past two weeks have shown once again that this label isn’t accurate.
In the Philippines, the area south of Manila was hit hard by Typhoon Haiyan. Quickly dubbed a “superstorm,” Haiyan turned out to be the worst hurricane recorded in human history.
Typhoons are the same kind of storm as hurricanes, only different in name as the western Pacific countries use a different terminology than the one familiar to U.S. residents.
While Haiyan was still active, Google Earth showed a diameter of 1,500 miles across its bands of storm clouds. Sustained winds reached 193 mph, with intermittent gusts of 230 mph. This put Haiyan “off the charts,” as one meteorologist put it.
In the Philippines, 12 million people were in the path of the typhoon. 125,000 families had to flee for higher ground. The International Federation of Red Cross (www.ifrc.org) urgently appealed for donations to help provide aid.
Overall, Haiyan made history by topping superstorms like Camille (1969) and Allen (1980), which previously were among the most powerful on record. Over here, in the Western Atlantic Basin, we’ve had an unusually quiet season for hurricanes and tropical storms. But put in the context of global climatic change, this doesn’t mean that the risk from such catastrophic weather has gone away.
The increasing heat budget of the planet means that weather becomes more changeable than it has in past centuries. A superstorm in one area, and a quiet period in another, fit this pattern quite well.
The same is true for winter storms. It’s likely that we’ll see unusually warm winters in Georgia, interspersed with some that bring severe “Arctic Express” cold snaps.
In the Pacific, Haiyan just added again to the woes of that troubled region. The Pacific Rim, which includes the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and neighboring countries, is prone to earthquakes, volcanoes, heavy summer monsoon rains, and typhoons. This is clearly a part of the globe in need of international attention and help.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.