edge of the North Pacific, the archipelago
“is right along the alleyway of typhoons and
right up front,” says Cesar Villanoy, a physical oceanographer at UPD. Eight or nine
damaging typhoons wallop the country each
year, on average.
But Haiyan was in a class of its own
(Science, 29 November 2013, p. 1027).
Typhoons draw their energy from the heat
in surface waters, and those waters were
plenty warm last year along Haiyan’s track.
Typically typhoon winds stir up deeper,
cooler water, curtailing a storm’s energy
buildup. But over the past 2 decades,
unusual0ly steady easterly trade winds have
piled warm water into the western Pacific,
warming and thickening subsurface waters,
forming a larger reservoir of storm-fueling
heat. The tropical cyclone heat potential, a
measure of this subsurface heat, has increased
10% since the early 1990s in the western
Pacific, according to I-I Lin, a specialist
in typhoon-ocean interactions at National
Taiwan University in Taipei. Haiyan also
the Philippines, giving it plenty of open ocean
to muster strength for its assault on land.
Haiyan is already recognized as the most
intense tropical storm ever at the time of
landfall, but some scientists think it has a
claim to being the most intense—period.
Meteorologists rank tropical storms by their
sustained wind speed, wind radius—how far
from the storm’s center that winds of a given
speed are found—and barometric pressure,
with a lower pressure usually correlating with
By all three criteria, the reigning champ
is 1979’s Supertyphoon Tip, which achieved
a peak sustained wind speed of 165 knots,
a whopping 30-knot wind radius of 1100
kilometers, and a sea-level pressure of 870
millibars. Tip set all these records while
meandering around the western North Pacific;
it weakened significantly and was no longer
a supertyphoon when it swept through Japan,
causing widespread flooding and killing 42.
“It may be time to recognize a new
modern-era world record” for storm intensity,
argues Mark Lander, a meteorologist at the
University of Guam in Mangilao. In a paper
presented at an American Meteorological
Society conference earlier this month, he
noted that the Joint Typhoon Warning Center,
operated by the U.S. Navy and Air Force in
Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, estimated Haiyan’s
peak sustained wind speed at 170 knots, based
on satellite imagery.
Pacific cyclones are poorly monitored;
winds and pressures are mostly estimated
from satellite observations. Other recent
storms may have rivaled Haiyan, and it might
even have been matched by an 1897 typhoon
that also devastated Tacloban. In the aftermath
of that storm, José María Algué, a Jesuit priest
in charge of meteorological observations
at the Manila Observatory, led a mission
to survey damage and interview survivors.
He then wrote a 50-plus page monograph
documenting the devastation left by the winds
and storm surge, which claimed 1299 lives.
The surge heights he recorded suggest
the 1897 storm “was potentially just as
strong” as Haiyan, says Fernando Siringan,
a UPD geologist working with Villanoy.
The Cyclone Addict
Some of the most revealing data about last year’s Supertyphoon Haiyan—
the strongest ever known to hit land—came not from a team of Ph. D.s but
from an advertising executive named Josh Morgerman, who eagerly puts
himself in the path of storms. For Morgerman, who is based in the Los
Angeles area, storm chasing is “like an addiction,” he says. “Some people
need that adrenaline rush.”
Morgerman first pursued a storm when Hurricane Bob slammed New
England in 1991. “I followed it by riding the train to Providence, Rhode
Island, and carrying paper maps,” he says. Now he’s equipped with alti-
meters, barometers, and GPS-equipped
iPads, uploading data and images to
his iCyclone website (www.icyclone.
com) and the tropical storms mail list.
He chases storms with two kindred spirits: Mark Thomas, an entrepreneur in
Taipei, and James Reynolds, a video-grapher working out of Hong Kong.
Morgerman, 44, ventured to Asia
last fall, driven by “the dearth of storm
activity in North America.” After covering three western Pacific typhoons,
he hit the jackpot by landing right in
On 7 November, the team checked
into Hotel Alejandro in the heart of Tacloban, a commercial and
political hub in the central Philippines. The next day, from the hotel’s
balconies, they documented winds blowing out windows and rip-
ping off roofs while shards of glass, bits of tin roofing, tree limbs,
and other debris flew by. They captured the chaos within the hotel’s
hallways, where guests and neighbors cowered in the dark. At one
point, Morgerman and Thomas helped guests trapped in first-
floor rooms escape the fast-rising waters through smashed win-
dows. Afterward, they documented downed power lines, overturned
trucks, shacks reduced to splinters, and people poking in the rubble
The team’s harrowing videos, shown on CNN, even impress storm survivors. “Every time somebody asks about the storm, I just show them the
videos and they have no more questions,” says Christian Rey, an emergency medical technician with the Tacloban fire department. And for those
not on the scene, the videos provide “immediate and dramatic evidence of
the scale of the disaster, and probably increased the speed and amount of
aid,” says Mark Lander, a meteorologist at University
of Guam in Mangilao.
Morgerman’s videos and ground-truthing are making the scientific rounds
as well. In a poster at the American Meteorological Society’s 31st Conference on
Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology earlier this month in San Diego, California,
Morgerman presented information distilled from dozens of interviews, hundreds
of photos, storm surge estimates, and pressure measurements. His observations will
be “invaluable if we are to better understand the satellite data,” says Bryan Norcross, a meteorologist and
hurricane specialist at The Weather Channel.
“I’m excited that scientists can take what I’ve provided—a body of
detailed evidence collected on the ground—and take it from there,”
Morgerman says. His one regret is that he didn’t get into Haiyan’s eye,
which passed south of Tacloban. “It breaks my heart thinking that I could
have gotten the only pressure reading ever from the center of a Category
5 storm,” he says. –D. N.
Up-close and personal. Josh Morgerman (inset)
getting Haiyan’s ferocity on tape.