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Super Typhoon Haiyan: One for the history books

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    Tuesday, November 12, 2013, 7:06 AM -

    Super Typhoon Haiyan, which has been described as the strongest landfalling tropical cyclone in recorded history, devastated the island country of the Philippines late last week. Officials estimate that up to 10,000 people are dead, and hundreds of thousands displaced.

    Super Typhoon Haiyan, known in the Philippines as Yolanda, made landfall Friday with sustained winds estimated at an incredible 195 mph (314 km/h). This is equivalent to a very strong Category 5 hurricane.

    Destructive winds, heavy rains, and major storm surge have caused widespread devastation throughout the central Philippines, most notably in the city of Tacloban. The photos trickling in from the Philippines have been absolutely heartwrenching.

    This part of the world is no stranger to strong typhoons. In fact, around 20 typhoons enter Philippine waters each year, with around 8 or 9 making landfall. Yet even by Philippine standards, Super Typhoon Haiyan was a catastrophic storm.

    Typhoon Haiyan track (Met Office)

    Typhoon Haiyan track (Met Office)

    Haiyan began as a Tropical Depression in the West Pacific on November 3rd, rapidly intensifying to a typhoon and then a super typhoon (equivalent to a Category 5 hurricane) on November 6th. Meteorologists around the world felt a mix of awe and dread on Friday November 8th, as they watched Haiyan’s formidable eyewall approach the Philippines.

    Super Typhoon Haiyan made landfall on the Philippine island of Samar around 4:40 am local time (20:40 UTC) November 8, 2013, before continuing out to the South China Sea.

    Visible satellite image of Super Typhoon Haiyan at landfall (University of Wisconsin-Madison, CIMSS)

    Haiyan by the Numbers

    The strength of a tropical cyclone can be described in terms of maximum sustained wind speeds or lowest central pressure. (Unfortunately, typhoons in the Western Pacific aren’t monitored using hurricane hunter aircraft, so Haiyan’s winds and pressure have been estimated using satellites.)

    Haiyan’s sustained winds were estimated at 195 mph (314 km/h) at landfall, making it the strongest landfalling tropical cyclone on record. The previous record was held by Hurricane Camille in 1969, which made landfall in Mississippi with 190 mph (306 km/h) winds.

    Satellite estimation of maximum winds (University of Wisconsin-Madison, CIMSS)

    Since 1969, only three tropical cyclones have come close to these wind speeds -- Super Typhoon Tip (1979), Hurricane Camille (1969), and Hurricane Allen (1980).

    Japan’s Meteorological Agency estimated Haiyan’s lowest central pressure at 895 mb, although some experts suggest it could have been lower. Typhoon Tip in 1979 currently holds the record with a measured pressure of 870 mb. In the Atlantic, Hurricane Wilma in 2005 had an estimated central pressure of 882 mb. Haiyan ranks as 12th strongest tropical cyclone on record, in terms of central pressure.

    Total economic damages are estimated at $14 billion, making Haiyan the most expensive natural disaster in Philippines history. Even though the final death toll is still unknown, Haiyan will likely become the deadliest natural disaster in the Philippines.

    Typhoon vs. Hurricane

    Typhoons and hurricanes are the same thing, just called by a different name. They fall under the umbrella of tropical cyclones, the general term for a rotating storm system of tropical origins.

    In the North Atlantic and Northeastern Pacific, strong tropical cyclones are called hurricanes. In the Northwestern Pacific, they’re called typhoons. In other basins, they may be referred to as cyclonic storms, severe cyclones, or simply tropical cyclones.

    Hurricanes are rated using the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. Hurricanes reaching Category 3 (sustained winds of 111 mph or 179 km/h) and higher are considered major hurricanes. In the Northwest Pacific, if a typhoon’s sustained winds reach 150 mph (241 km/h), it is considered a super typhoon (equivalent to a strong Category 4 or Category 5 hurricane).

    Full Impact Still Unknown

    The Philippines wasn’t the only country to feel the effects of Haiyan. A weaker Typhoon Haiyan made a second landfall in Vietnam on Sunday, bringing strong winds and widespread flooding to northern Vietnam and southern China.

    Haiyan has now now been downgraded to a remnant low over southern China. However, a new area of low pressure may take aim at the Philippines in the next few days. It won’t be anywhere near Haiyan in terms of intensity, but may bring a round of heavy rainfall, hampering recovery efforts.

    Water Vapour Satellite (NOAA)

    Water Vapour Satellite (NOAA)

    Although pictures and reports continue to come in from the Philippines, the full extent of the damage won’t be known for quite some time, as many areas are still without power or any type of communication.

    If you are looking for information on loved ones abroad, the Canadian Foreign Affairs Office has provided several ways to get in touch. You can call the office’s 24/7 Emergency Watch and Response Centre by calling toll-free 1-800-387-3124 or 613-996-8885 (collect calls are accepted) or sending an email to sos@international.gc.ca.

    You can help the victims of Haiyan by donating to the Red Cross.

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