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Super Typhoon Haiyan: The Most Powerful Cyclone in History?

The monster storm hitting the Philippines is causing all kinds of nasty damage.


The eye of Super Typhoon Haiyan is a thing of terrible perfection: a gyre of furious thunderstorms anchoring one of the most powerful cyclones to ever menace the Pacific. One American meteorologist thinks it might be the most powerful in recorded history to hit land, although problems with measuring winds makes that unknown for now.

On Friday morning, Philippines time, the storm was throwing 195 m.p.h. sustained winds and occasional gusts of 235 m.p.h, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center – the speed equivalent of the strongest category of tornado, a monster EF-5. In the West it would be classified as a top-of-the-scale Category 5 hurricane, which causes "catastrophic damage" when it makes landfall, says the U.S. National Hurricane Center: "A high percentage of framed homes will be destroyed, with total roof failure and wall collapse. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last for weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months."

Footage of damage coming now from the region backs up the notion this could be a major disaster. Look at this demolished building, smashed into tinder, this smitten vegetation, and this video of heavy objects flying through the air:

Many people in the Philippines have evacuated ahead of Haiyan, known locally as Yolanda, and it's up to time to see how big of a catastrophe it could become. The media are not painting a rosy picture. This is the latest from USA Today:

• No hurricane in the Atlantic has ever been this strong.
• It's possible Haiyan could become the strongest storm ever recorded to make landfall, anywhere on Earth.
• The storm is over 300 miles wide: The width is about equal to the distance between Boston and Philadelphia....
• A storm surge as high as 15 feet is possible in some parts of the Philippines.
• A 50-mile wide swath of 8+ inches of rain is predicted to cross the central Philippines, which will lead to dangerous flash floods and mudslides.

Here's hoping everybody in Haiyan's path makes it out OK. For people lucky enough to be half a world away, and who would like to know what a typhoon looks like when it's so powerful it spawns 50-foot-tall waves, gaze at the furious red vortex above. It's an infrared capture of the cyclone's eye, taken by the Suomi NPP satellite early November 7. Scientists at NASA monitoring this island-masking doughnut hole note that is has "multiple concentric rings of thunderstorms and a deep convective eyewall." The cloud tops surrounding it are a freezing -81.7 degrees, which they say indicates "very high, powerful thunderstorms with very heavy rain potential."

These shots give a little more perspective on how ugly this storm is. About the first one, NOAA explains: "This image shows some of the islands at the mouth of the Leyte Gulf in the Philippines through the eye of Super Typhoon Haiyan. This imagery is of water vapor as measured in the infrared spectrum from the Japan Meteorological Agency's MTSAT geostationary satellite, taken at 2030Z on November 7, 2013"

(U.S. Navy / Japan Meteorological Agency)
(University of Wisconsin, Madison)

Top image courtesy of NOAA / NASA

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.