With no less than 30 tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic during this calendar year, it was easy to miss what happened elsewhere in the world. Madagascar for example, an island nation in the Indian Ocean roughly the size of Texas, received 14 inches of rain in January. NASA’s Earth Observatory reported how the town of Marovoay had disappeared almost completely beneath flood waters. The Pacific showed even more activity than the Indian Ocean. Super Typhoon Goni broke all records when it made landfall in the Philippines as a category 5 storm on October 31, with wind speeds up to an incredible 195 mph. After Goni killed more than 2 dozen residents, it battered Vietnam. Cleanup in both countries had barely started when typhoon Vamco came along. After flooding large parts of Luzon Island, including the Manila metro area, Vamco followed Goni into Vietnam and brought more death and destruction.
Amid these large-scale effects of climate change, some places stand out as more vulnerable than others. Well over two-thirds of the world is covered by oceans. This puts coastal locations at greatest risk from tropical storm systems, which develop entirely over sea water. But inland locations can suffer equally if the geography allows for a storm to drop massive rainfall on mountains, which then causes landslides and flooding in the towns down below. An early example of one is Gonaives, Haiti, population 300,000. In September 2008, tropical storm Hannah put large sections of this city under water. Some areas ended up submerged by 6 feet. Marovoay, Madagascar is located at the foot of mountain valleys as well, which brought the floodwaters this January.
Where a bay or an estuary meets the ocean, the waves can push into a city directly. The aggravating circumstance in this case is the narrowing of the pathway as water pushes landward. Any long-term resident of Hamburg, Germany knows about the February, 1962 flood. North Sea storm Vincinette, not tropical for a change, pushed deadly flood waves 60 miles up the Elbe River estuary. 315 people drowned. Even I, as a frightened 7-year old back then, remember the television images of people trapped on rooftops, with flood waters lapping at the edges. Locations as diverse as Madagascar, the Philippines, Haiti and Germany will be in the news again as the world’s oceans produce future severe storms.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.