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Cyclone Fantala Just Became the Indian Ocean's Most Powerful Storm on Record

The third record-breaking storm in under a year might owe its ferocity to human activity.

Winds of 170 mph can lift and hurl heavy cars, even peel the bark from trees. So it’s a good thing not many people are in the waters north of Madagascar right now, where Tropical Cyclone Fantala just made history as the strongest-known storm in the Indian Ocean.

The mighty tempest spun itself up to 150 knots (173 mph) on Monday, surpassing the 145-knot (167 mph) barrage of Super Cyclonic Storm Gonu in 2007. (Reliable records only date to 1990, for what it’s worth.) That would make it a Category 5 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson wind scale. It simmered down to about 85 knots on Wednesday, and is expected to wander southeast for a couple days before running out of steam.

NASA

Fantala is the latest in a series of abnormally menacing cyclones: Hurricane Patricia became the strongest-known storm in the Northeast Pacific in October, and February’s Winston caused devastation in Fiji as the most-potent cyclone on record in the Southwest Pacific. This progression of monster storms might have something to due with human activity. “Many parts of the tropics have seen record-warm sea surface temperatures in 2015 and 2016, triggered by a strong El Niño on top of longer-term warming caused by human-produced greenhouse gases,” writes meteorologist Bob Henson at Weather Underground. “These unusual readings have added fuel to the fire of tropical cyclone production.”

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.