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Super Typhoon Haiyan: Realities of a Warmed World and Need for Immediate Climate Action

Posted on 16 November 2013 by dana1981

This is a re-post of an Eco Watch article by Michael Mann

It is with a heavy heart and a respectful hand that I write this. Super Typhoon Haiyan has only just passed, and the devastation cannot yet even be fully understood. With that in mind, please consider a donation to the Philippine Red Cross.

But that will only aid those impacted by this storm. Not the next. Or the one after that.


Damage from Haiyan, Photo credit: Creative Commons, EU ECHO via Arlynn Aquino, 2013

This was the feeling captured by Yeb Saño, the Philippine’s lead negotiator to this year’s United Nations Climate Talks (COP). As he tearfully pleaded with the delegation gathered in Warsaw, Poland, he powerfully pressed them for action and challenged those who stand it its way. He dared those still unconvinced by the need for climate action to do a little sightseeing, and take in the impacts of rising sea levels as they surge inland in front of storms, of melting glaciers as they flood the land they once nourished, of drought-induced famine as it destabilizes weak nations and of unprecedented hurricanes and typhoons that have pounded the U.S. and Asia alike.

For now, super storms are still rare. However, models suggest more frequent and intense storms in a warmed world. A number of scientists suspect that certain recent storms like Sandy and Haiyan exhibited characteristics outside the range of natural variation.

Although exact measurements are hard to come by (there were no flights in the Western Pacific to provide direct measurements) satellite images along with readings of ocean heat seem to suggest that Haiyan was an unnaturally powerful storm. The science is hinting that this storm may not have been so catastrophic in a world without warming.

The unusually deep, unusually warm pool of water that provided the initial fuel is unlikely to have existed in a world without warming. Global warming-induced sea level rise contributed to the 20-foot storm surges that caught victims off guard, much as it contributed to Sandy’s record 13-foot coastal surge that flooded substantial sections of New York and New Jersey. These events would not have been as severe in a world without warming.

But herein lies the crux—we no longer live in a world without warming. Given that 1985 was the last year with temperatures below the 20th century average, and 2000-2010 was the hottest decade on record, it has become impossible to say for certain that any given storm is free from the influence of our warmed world.

While contrarians may dislike it when activists or actors like George Clooney point out the linkage between climate change and extreme weather, the bottom line is this: climate change makes tropical storms more damaging. Not only through increased wind speed and rainfall, but most notably through rising sea levels. This means greater damage and loss of property and life.

There are those who suggest that it would be easier to simply retreat from the coasts that get battered by these storms. But I imagine many people would agree with Yeb Saño, who said:

“We can take drastic action now to ensure that we prevent a future where super typhoons are a way of life, because we refuse, as a nation, to accept a future where super typhoons like Haiyan become a fact of life. We refuse to accept that running away from storms, evacuating our families, suffering the devastation and misery, having to count our dead, become a way of life. We simply refuse to.”

Let that call echo, and be heard in response to those who would insist on waiting for the next storm to take action.

Michael E. Mann is Distinguished Professor of Meteorology at Penn State University and author of “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars”, now out in paperback with a foreword by Bill Nye “The Science Guy.”

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Comments 1 to 28:

  1. "However, models suggest more frequent and intense storms in a warmed world."

    Is that right? I have often corrected 'skeptics' when they announce that more frequent storms is a climate prediction under a warm world, linking them to RealClimate, here and the IPCC reports, saying that storm intensity is predicted to increase, not frequency.

    AR5 (14.6.3)says:

    While projections under 21st century greenhouse warming indicate that it is likely that the global frequency of tropical cyclones will either decrease or remain essentially unchanged, concurrent with a likely increase in both global mean tropical cyclone maximum wind speed and rainfall rates, there is lower confidence in region-specific projections of frequency and intensity. Still, based on high-resolution modelling studies, the frequency of the most intense storms, which are associated with particularly extensive physical effects, willmore likely than not increase substantially in some basins under projected 21st century warming.

    As far as I understand the matter, the sentece would be more accurate if it had gone thus; "...models suggest more frequent intense storms in a warmed world."

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  2. The two things we have to ask ourselves about this storm are;

    1)"Was the intensity of this storm in the area in question 'unprecedented'?"

    and 2) Has the frequency of storms of this magnitude increased over the past 60 or so years?"

    At this point the answer to both questions is clearly "NO" "no"

    2 3
    Moderator Response:

    [JH] The use of "all caps" is prohibited by the SkS Comments Policy. Please read the policy and adhere to it.

  3. hank_, with regard to (1), the intensity of a storm can be measured in various ways.  As measured by central pressure, Haiyan was exceptional but not unprecedented, being equal 21st of Western North Pacific cyclones (typhoons).  That is with an estimated low pressure of 895 hPa.  However, one storm chaser in Tacloban measured pressures as low as 972 hPa before his barometer was destroyed.

    As measured by windspeed, Haiyan had the highest windspeeds at landfall of any tropical cyclone.  Jeff Masters shows this chart of windspeeds at landfall:

    However, Tropical Cyclone Haiyan was not the strongest cyclone measured.  Unfortunately lists as to which were stronger vary, and measurements prior to 1970 are known to be biased high, so it is unclear whether Haiyan was the second strongest measured, or only the fourth.  So, again, exceptional but not unprecedented.

    However, on (2) you are simply wrong.  Elsner et al (2008) show a trend to increasing frequency of the 95 percentile of storms with increasing SST which is statistically significant (see table 1).  More recent studies have been a little ambiguous, but it is evident that the answer to your question, is either "yes", or (at best for you) "it is not yet clear". 

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  4. A quick review of recent papers and AR5 suggests that storms of this intensity have very likely increased in the North Atlantic and other ocean areas, except for the North West Pacific (the Philippines is in the western Pacific Ocean).


    This additional homogenization step is found to measurably reduce LMI trends, but the global trends in the LMI of the strongest storms remain positive, with amplitudes of around +1 m s−1 decade−1 and p-value = 0.1. Regional trends, in m s−1 decade−1, vary from −2 (p-value = 0.03) in the western North Pacific, +1.7 (p-value = 0.06) in the South Indian, +2.5 (p-value = 0.09) in the South Pacific, to +8 (p-value < 0.001) in the North Atlantic.

    While there is much uncertainty outside the North Atlantic, there is some confidence that Major Cyclone intensity has increased over the last 50 years or so globally, even while the total number of storms has not changed or decreased.

    Why is it important to determine if this storm was 'unprecedented'?

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  5. hank_@2,

    You are wrong. The factual reality is that, no one has shown that model's predictions about future storms are accurate or wrong because no statistically signifficant data exists. In other words, the factual reality is: "we don't know". That's quite different to  your SkS comment policy violating answer "NO".

    Application of simple boolean logic in both statistics as in this example, as well as in everyday life, usually leads to illogical conclusions. In order to say "no" to any theory or claim, you have to present a proof that the claim is false. The fact that we cannot measure some claim (like in case of cyclones, we don't have enough data to show any statistically significant trend - the trend could be positive AWA negative with data we have), means that "we don't know".

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  6. barry@1,

    If you cared to click on the link pointed by the statement you question, you'd discovered that it leads to Emanuel 2013, which states in their abstract:

    Tropical cyclones downscaled from the climate of the period 1950–2005 are compared with those of the 21st century in simulations that stipulate that the radiative forcing from greenhouse gases increases by over preindustrial values. In contrast to storms that appear explicitly in most global models, the frequency of downscaled tropical cyclones increases during the 21st century in most locations

    (my emphasis)

    Therefore you would know that Mike Mann's claim comes from Emanuel 2013, and not from AR5 (14.6.3) as you chose to cite. In that context, the original statement is correct and you're wrong criticising it.

    You would be right by saying, "according to some other sources, i.e. AR5, the frequency of the storms will not increase". Then the reader would decide which source is more reliable: Kerry Emanuel, the leading world expert in tropical cyclones, or IPCC who took the average literature on the subject and draw more conservative conclusions, as expected per my emphasis.

    But the way you phased your comment, you suggest as if Mike Mann was somehow misinterpreting the evidence, which is not the case, therefore you're wrong.

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  7. I'm not sure where to find the data but what I would be interested in knowing would be whether there has been before a typhoon of this size keeping winds as fast. Normally these storms see a decreased wind speed when reaching the kind of size that Haiyan showed, yet the winds remained very strong, in the Camille range, a much smaller storm. Anyone has light to shed on this?

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  8. chriskoz,

    I clicked on the link and read before I posted.

    Hitherto, I had understood that projections had generally been that tropical storms frequency would not change under a warming climate, but that it was likely that storm intensity, particularly severe storms, would increase. This is how it is put in AR4 and most studies I have read. This from an article I read just now;

    The best evidence scientists have at the moment suggests tropical cyclones may become more intense under climate change, but are unlikely to increase in number.

    But a new study just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences challenges the status quo, suggesting tropical cyclones will become more intense, and occur more frequently.

    I am used to Mann and other serious scientists taking a conservative approach to new work and climate science in general. I did not know if there had been a solid evolution in thinking on tropical storm frequency commensurate with Mann's comment, hence my query.

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  9. barry@8,

    Thanks for the extra info, your explained query makes sense now.

    I don't know if Mann is biased by this single outlier study or if he has some broader background/own expertise to subscribe to it. I don't know enough about the subject to have an opinion.

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  10. I am an artist, not a scientist.  But, I've read a great deal of climate science as I researched and wrote my new play "Extreme Whether" and I continue to read the science.  My question is this: why when an esteemed scientist, Michael Mann, in this case, writes a cogent and moral essay, based upon observable fact, that is also a plea for action, do scientists then begin to parse and shred and take us back to questions about "this particular storm" and whether we are facing increased frequency or, only, increased severity.  Dr. Mann's essay, like Dr. Sano's emotional and compelling remarks in Warsaw, are calls for public policy action in the face what is most surely an increasing disaster area called our planet. Can we not act together, even as we continue to pursue our scientific research or our artistic explorations; can we not call for and support public policies to limit climate change?

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  11. Chriskoz,

    Since Michael Mann was the lead author for this study:

    Mann, M.E., Woodruff, J.D., Donnelly, J.P., Zhang, Z., Atlantic hurricanes and climate over the past 1,500 years, Nature, 460, 880-883, 2009.

    as well as numerous other studies of ocean atmosphere interactions, I would presume he has "broader background/own expertise".

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  12. I am working on a research paper and did not have a lot of time to devote to researching this event.  However, I have a couple of statements and questions.

    1. What are the official storm surge figures?  From the the Global Disaster and Alert Coordination (GDAC) website I found this which apparently shows the predicted storm surge at 1.87 m.  I understand that these are predictions - I want to know the actual recorded data.

      Tacloban City

    2.  What does the data show for SLR in that area of the world?  It is easy to say that SLR contributed to the damage, but just how much more damage can a few mm of SLR cause?  

    3. Other manmade factors are potentially much more important.  From Global sea-level rise is recognised, but flooding from anthropogenic land subsidence is ignored around northern Manila Bay, Philippines by Rodolfo and Siringan (2006): "Land subsidence resulting from excessive extraction of groundwater is particularly acute in East Asian countries. Some Philippine government sectors have begun to recognise that the sea-level rise of one to three millimetres per year due to global warming is a cause of worsening floods around Manila Bay, but are oblivious to, or ignore, the principal reason: excessive groundwater extraction is lowering the land surface by several centimetres to more than a decimetre per year".
    2 0
    Moderator Response:

    [DB] Embedded pdf image of map as a jpg in Point 1.

  13. Mods can you correct the links in #12?  Thanks.

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] I was able to embed the link to the article, Global sea-level rise is recognised, but flooding from anthropogenic land subsidence is ignored around northern Manila Bay, Philippines, in your point #3.

    I am not able to fix the link to the map in your point #2. 

  14. Tom Curtis @ 3.

    What is the source of that wind speed data?  I am reading that the measured sustained winds at landfall were 147mph and gusts of 170mph.


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  15. It might be interesting for didactical reasons to ahhere to the small video in New York Times:

    about hurricane formation and the increasing energy within the hurricane due to rise of sea surface temperature. Nice viedeo!

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  16. jzk @14, the wind speeds I quote are for sustained one minute gusts.  They were reported by Jeff Masters, and by the Gaurdian, to whom I have provided links.  They were originally reported by the US Navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JTWC).  The BBC reports:

    "[Haiyan] brought sustained winds of 235km/h (147mph), with gusts of 275 km/h (170 mph), with waves as high as 15m (45ft), bringing up to 400mm (15.75 inches) of rain in places."

    Those figures are taken from the Phillipine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA), which report ten minute sustained gusts.  The difference between the agencies was noted by the Manila Times ten days ago.  Jeff Masters believes the gusts speed reported by the JWTC = the sustained wind speed reported by PAGASA after multiplying by a standard factor of 1.14 to account for the difference in period of measurement.  Presumably the higher measured "gusts" reported at 235 mph reported by the JWTC are then recorded gusts that were not sustained for a full minute.  I have not seen confirmation of that, however.

    Finally, if you go to PAGASA, click on "climatology" in the side bar, then on "Climate Statistics" in the window that opens, then on "Tropcial Cyclone Statistics" in the side bar, then on "Important Facts about Tropical Cyclones", and then finally on "The five strongest tropical cyclones that made landfall in the Philippines" you will find a list of the five strongest such cyclones not including Haiyan.  This is of interest because only two of the cyclones (Senning and Anding) make a similar list printed by the WSJ.  For those two, Senning (Joan) is reported to have a peak gust of 275 kmh (172 mph) on the PAGASA website, but ten minute sustained gusts of 193 mph in the Wall Street Journal.  Anding (Irma) is reported to have a peak gust of 260 kph (163 mph) on PAGASA and sustained gusts of 171 mph on the Wall Street Journal.  This is difficult to comport with the accuracy of the WSJ report.  As it happens, PAGASA also reports that Remming (Durian) had a peak gust of 320 kph (200 mph), but does not make the list.  If peak gust as reported by PAGASA is simply the peak recorded speed without any time limit, that would partially explain the discrepancy between the WSJ and PAGASA.  It would also give a comparitor to Haiyan's reported "gust" by the JTWC of 235 mph.  

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  17. Tom @16

    Correct me if I am wrong, but isn't the JTWC providing "estimates" based on satellite data, not real on the ground measurements?  

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  18. jzk @17, that is normally correct, although I did see one report that the JTWC had access to surface based observations at the time of the estimate.  Unfortunately I cannot find that report, and hence cannot assess its accuracy. It should not be assumed, however, that land based reports from PAGASA are automatically more accurate.  In particular, most of their observations are from far from the eye of the storm, and the one anenometer they had that was in the  eye of the storm (at Tacloban Airport) was also destroyed by the storm.  Further, once over land, winds are reduced by about 15% by friction (Jeff Masters) so that land based anenometers will record wind speeds about 15% below those at actual landfall.  So, there are several reasons why hte PAGASA recorded speeds might be below the JTWC estimate, and/or the true wind speeds.

    Having said that, I find the coincidence between the 10 minute sustained gust and the "sustained" speed from JWTC once factored for the difference between a 1 and 10 minute measurement period compelling.  Absent evidence that the JWTC 195 mph estimate is supposed to be of the base level of the winds, the PAGASA and JWTC estimates in fact agree, once we allow for the difference in gust interval.  Further, that appears to be the opinion of Jeff Masters on this, and he is definitely expert and reliable (while I am merely strive for the later).

    You may want to speculate about a fundamental disagreement between PAGASA and JWTC, but in the absence of specific information, that is all you are doing.  Inexpert sepulation in the face of the better informed opinions of experst such as Jeff Masters.

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  19. Tom @ 18

    "You may want to speculate about a fundamental disagreement between PAGASA and JWTC, but in the absence of specific information, that is all you are doing. Inexpert sepulation in the face of the better informed opinions of experst such as Jeff Masters."

    Really, when I saw that ranking I wanted to understand the source of your data.  I don't fault Jeff or the JWTC for making estimates at the time based on the best information that was available to them.  But, if we are going to be comparing storms, we should compare apples to apples.  Are the other storms on that list ranked by 1 minute sustained gust data estimated by satellites, or is it based on actual instrument readings on the ground over ten minutes?  Even inexperts like me can ask questions like that to ascertain the vailidity of the comparison, no?

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  20. I think the comment "but most notably through rising sea levels" needs modification or clarification because I would think by general logic that the extra energy added significantly more to the energy that this typhoon delivered to land than the small sea level increase. Dr. Mann quotes Yeb Saño on this but I infer that his posting does not allow him realistically to delve into complexities without losing the focus on this particular disaster. That could be done in this posting. I infer that sea level rise is a longer term issue than current times (currently minor). If I am incorrect, somebody please educate me regarding the amplification of the small sea level increase as the surge pushes and squeezes water up the gradient (choke-point) to land.

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  21. jzk @19, when you think about it, most of the data about peak intensity for cyclones since the 1970s will come from sattelite observations.  That is because it is very rare for cyclones to strike land at their peak intensity, and even when they do strike land data will be distorted by the slowing of the winds due to friction, the location of the instruments relative to the eye, and the period over which the instruments survived.  Thus, the Tacloban Airport anenometer only recorded gusts up to 23 km, but that is hardly relevant given that it was destroyed four hours before the nearest approach of the eye.  As another illustration, here is a pressure record from Tacloban City (probably the closest surviving record):


      It, however, was taken "a few miles north of the edge of the eye" and so certainly do not indicate directly the actual pressure at the center of the eye (estimated at 895 mb by the Japanese Meteorolical Agency from satellite).

    The PAGASA record may in fact be derived from the JMA estimates which are based on satellites in the same way as the JTWC, although using a 10 minute time period for gusts.

    If you wish to avoid comparing apples and oranges, I'm sorry.  You are out of luck.  All we have been served is fruit salad.  All I know is that the JTWC data are typically used by researchers in preference to that of JMA/PAGASA; and that the JTWC long term record rates the Haiyan as the fourth most powerfull tropical cyclone in terms of wind speed, and the most powerful at the time of landfall, while the JMA ranks it as the second most powerfull, and the most powerfull at landfall; and that two lists for tropical cyclones making landfall in the Philippines purportedly from PAGASA disagree about the cyclones in the top five, their windspeeds, and their rank order.

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  22. From the RP:
    This is slightly off topic...(ok way off topic but where on SKS can this be posted?)
    Part of the measure impact as far as the death count is concerned is related to the infrastructure and culture of poverty that defines this 3rd world effort at modernity. This in no way lessens the tragedy or alters the storms intensity or even addresses the climate science issue. I am only stating a point of fact about the Philippines. Had this storm hit Japan you would not had seen anything like this as far as damage or body count. Often the media gets into a frenzy over the numbers without any perspective.


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    Moderator Response:

    [JH]What does the phrase, "From the RP" mean?

    For future reference, the threads to Weekly Digests and News Roundups are "open threads."

    Your "point of fact" is nothing more than your personal opinion. Unsubstantiated global assertions carry little or no weight on the SkS comment threads.

  23. There are quite a few effects that a warming climate will have on storms. It can't not affect them can it. The profile is changed. Anecdotally it seems to me that powerful storms are spinning up much quicker.

    They are also happening earlier and later. Their tracts are also changing. They are starting and traversing over wider regions due to a greater spread of warmer surface temperatures. Are they lasting longer? Seems that way. Both these means they are combining with other weather phenomena more often like what happened with Sandy.

    Higher sea levels are having an impact on bigger storm surges. Their intensity certainly seems to be getting more or peaking higher at certain times.

    Precipitation for less intense storms is going through the roof. Thus making those quite devastating on a region. Not only for humans but for wild life etc.

    The frequency of more powerful storms seems to me to be increasing. See also this...

    So there are all these things and a few more which are happening due to global warming. Various sorts of storm records are been broken more frequently now.

    We need to have a central reference repository that meteorologist and climate scientist can use as a base line when talking about storms and global warming. There is still too much confusion when this topic is presented to the public unfortunately.


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  24. It was interesting to listen to the two scientists discoursing about this subject on "Science Friday" on PBS last week.

    Enragingly (to me)  they concluded that by the end of this century they may have accumulated enough data to determine if climate change is influencing the matter.

    This seems to me to be akin to a person, standing beneath a piano which has been dropped from 10 stories above, deciding to see if a breeze will come up to change the trajectory of it's fall, before electing to move out of it's way.

    "Come ON, breeze!!"

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Unnecessary white space deleted.

  25. Mod in response @22

    RP is the official name; it stands for the Republic of the Philippines and it happens to be where I live...also known as the PI (for old school US Navy types) or as I like to call it “the corrupt and fetid 7100”.

    The UN (using the World Bank "World Development Indicators 2012) list the RP on the per capita income index @114 out of 186, tied with Uzbekistan, just behind Moldova and slightly above Botswana; that supports the statement that the Philippines is impoverished.
    The good news that the government is trying to pass on is that 26% of the population is under the poverty line; they forget to include that the poverty line is a bar set very, very low, around $2600usd they also forget to mention that the % has increased 1%+ in 6 years. Of course Wiki list the poverty line at 16,000p per capita which is a long way away from $2600usd…
    So as a point of accept social science, the RP has a long history and culture of poverty that impacts any response to a natural disaster.
    These are the accepted points of fact concerning the RP that I was referring to. In the social sciences facts and metric standards have a little more interpretive breathing room than say chemistry or biology; but still your point is taken and in the future I will refrain from injecting any bias or subjective observations. As an aside notice all the construction bamboo and corrugated tin roof sections in the rubble…unlikely these kind of building materials were found in large quantities in New Orleans or New Jersey after those dramatic storms. There really isn’t any reason to compare building codes or enforcement; apples and cockroaches.
    Yes I know, this is not scientific nor does it address any aspect of climate science, it is merely an observation regarding the comparative impacts of this kind of weather event on a first world country vs. a third world country.

    In the future I will make nonscientific observations in the weekly forum as you suggested.

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  26. Hi Tom @3,

    That Wunderground figure you posted does tell a "nice" story.  This is not a rigorous statistical analysis, but what struck me about that figure is that is does support the research finding that the strongest tropical storms are becoming stronger as the oceans warm in response to global warming.

    For example, according to that Wundeground figure that you posted, 70% of the strongest landfalling hurricanes on record have occurred since 1990, and a whopping 50% since 2000.  That is not consistent with claims being made by some "skeptic" contrarians.

    In the case of Haiyan, data suggest that the cyclone traversed waters that were much warmer than usual below the surface, with anomalies approaching 5 C above normal near 100 m below the surface. Consequently, this storm had an immense amount of energy to tap into once it started to strengthen, and we witnessed the tragic and horrific consequences. For example, here is some footage of the storm surge as it came ashore at Hernani in eastern Samar on 8 November 2013.

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  27. YubeDude,

    Side note on bamboo for construction/scaffolding:

    I first came across it being extensively used in Hong Kong. My first thought was that it was a third world thing (not really knowing Hong Kong's financial status at 22 year of age). But then someone told me that it was a great material, as it was cheap, lightweight, easily and quickly grown, strong and flexible. Scaffolding can be more extensive and higher thanks to the weight/strength ratio.

    I also learned that it is a better scaffolding material for high winds, taking the force of wind better than metal, owing to the flex, and that if it falls, the lighter weight does less damage.

    So though it looks like a compromise developing countries have to make, it turns out that it may well be a better choice of material, especially for high wind events.

    Rebuilding costs to developing countries is a subtler issue than at first glance. If infrastructure is cheaply made and restored, then rebuilding could be less onerous, other factors depending, than for wealthier countries with expensive infrastructure. But a fairly safe generalization is that structures in the developing world (bamboo scaffolding aside), do not withstand high winds as well as wealthier countries. Immediate impact for third world communities is more devastating. And, according to the IPCC, most areas of the world more vulnerable to the risks of climate change are where developing countries are.

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  28. Poster,

    If you want to learn about hurricanes you should read Jeff Masters blog since he is a specialist on hurricanes and can sort through the different measurements.   Here is Dr. Masters last comments on Haiyan and Chris Burt weather historian at Wunderground comments are also valuable.  You often post links to unreliable sites like the WSJ for easily available scientific information.

    It was interesting that the WSJ list of hurricanes in the Philippines is different from Tom's list from the original source. Can you explain why your source appears to be mistaken?  If you cannot you should consider not using the WSJ as a source any more since they have been shown to be unreliable.  Perhaps you should rethink why your sources are frequently unreliable.

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