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Design: When three typhoons spin harmlessly, we all win

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    Brett Soderholm

    Friday, August 26, 2016, 12:01 PM - Hurricanes, typhoons, cyclones: different in name, identical in characteristics, spectacular in design, but collectively, perhaps, the most accurate embodiment of the word awesome.

    Despite its frequent informal use to describe something that is "extremely good" or "excellent", a Google search of the word defines awesome as, "extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear."

    So when a storm the size of Newfoundland forms, capable of causing millions of dollars in damage while threatening human lives, meteorologists feel equally as conflicted as awesome defines: pure amazement and fascination at such natural design, a phenomenon in itself, but simultaneous apprehension and fear that disaster looms.

    Now imagine what it feels like to witness no less than three of these storms forming in the same ocean … in under a week's time, and armed with the knowledge that all three pose no immediate threat to anyone or anything.

    Now that’s awesome in both senses of the word.

    This exact event took place in the Pacific Ocean in July 2015, and was immediately one for the record books. Between June 30, 2015 and July 5 of the same year, three independent tropical depressions (9W, 10W, 11W) attained the sustained wind speed threshold of 63 km/h to be given Tropical Storm designations, and thus spawning names: Chan-hom, Linfa and Nangka, respectively.

    By forming in the northwestern Pacific Ocean, these named-storms eventually attained the sustained wind speed threshold of 119 km/h to achieve typhoon status, and in the case of Nangka even breached Super Typhoon status, meaning sustained winds exceeded an incredible 220 km/h.

    (FYI: If these storms had formed in the Atlantic or northeastern Pacific Oceans, they would have been classified as hurricanes; if they had formed in either the Indian or south Pacific oceans they would have been cyclones).

    The rise of three typhoons in a week’s time certainly got meteorologists talking: "According to National Hurricane Center specialist Eric Blake, Wednesday, July 8, 2016, marked the first time there had been three typhoons simultaneously in the western Pacific Ocean since Oct. 24, 1994.”

    Satellite imagery of the event went viral – at least in the meteorological community – and weather enthusiasts world-wide were gushing over the beautiful hi-resolution images that meteorologists of 50 years ago wouldn’t even have been able to see in their wildest dreams.

    From left to right: Linfa, Chan-hom, Nangka. (File)

    From left to right: Linfa, Chan-hom, Nangka. (File)

    While many factors contributed to the formation of three simultaneous typhoons, the largest driving factor for their development was credited to a meteorological phenomenon known as the Madden-Julien Oscillation (MJO).

    In the simplest terms, the MJO can be thought of a wave of energy in the atmosphere that propagates eastward around the equator once every month or two. It consists of two dominant phases: convection-enhancing, and convection-suppressing. In the former phase, air has a tendency to rise, which allows for the development of thunderstorms and tropical cyclones; in the latter phase air has a tendency to sink, which makes it near impossible for any storms to form.

    As it were, the MJO was in its convection-suppressing phase for the six weeks prior to this multi-typhoon event. As soon as the phase flipped toward the end of June, it was open season once more for tropical cyclone development.

    Combine this phase-shift with extremely warm sea-surface temperatures, the source from which tropical storms gain their energy, and stronger-than-average westerly surface winds near the equator that promote rotation, and you’ve got a ripe environment for tropical cyclones to initiate.

    But to see three initiate in under a week, well, that certainly was rare indeed.

    While the event in itself was unique, so too was the opportunity given to meteorologists to admire the inherent natural beauty and design intricacy of powerful weather.

    It was as if they were finally permitted to take a step back, and admire such an incredible demonstration of nature’s intense fury for what it was, without the need to worry about the potential loss of life or large-scale infrastructure damage.

    While these typhoons did eventually make landfall in China, Korea, Japan, and the Philippines later on, the same technology that allowed us to admire one of the most impressive natural phenomena on Earth also saved millions of lives: thanks to high-resolution forecast models and observable satellite imagery, meteorologists were able to more accurately predict the exact track of these typhoons, which allowed governments to issue evacuation orders in advance of their landfall on affected areas.

    Now how (informally) awesome is that?

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