Cyclone Phailin is set to become the strongest India has ever seen

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With landfall in less than 24 hours (Saturday Oct. 12 in the afternoon, India time), final preparations are underway in India for Cyclone Phailin—now officially the strongest storm ever measured in the Indian Ocean. The image above shows the storm’s core as it approaches the coastline. (See our earlier coverage on why Phailin’s landfall in this particularly volatile part of India is especially unwelcome.)

This is the view from India’s Kalpana weather satellite:

The storm has strengthened at one of the fastest rates ever recorded, going from a tropical storm to a category 4 cyclone in only 24 hours. On Friday (Oct. 11), it became the equivalent of a category 5 hurricane—the strongest on the American scale—with sustained winds of 160 mph (260 kph). That official wind speed has tied Phailin with the devastating 1999 Orissa Cyclone which killed more than 10,000 people—currently India’s strongest storm ever. Cyclones in India are the same as hurricanes in the United States — different words for the same thing.

At least one atmospheric scientist believes a catastrophic storm surge—the rise of ocean levels pushed by a storm’s winds and pressure—may now be “a certainty”. Storm surge is by far Phailin’s biggest threat to lives along India’s coastline. Ocean levels may rise as much as 6 meters (20 feet) near and to the northeast of the storm’s landfall location, pushing an inexorable wall of water inland. Storm surge of nearly 3 meters may stretch as far northeast as the vulnerable Ganges Delta of Bangladesh—home to tens of millions. The JTWC estimates that waves of up to 17 meters (56 feet) are already buffeting the Bay of Bengal.

The storm may also bring nearly one meter of additional rainfall to inland areas that have already borne the brunt of an overly active monsoon season.

And the storm may not be finished strengthening yet.

Phailin is now forecast to break the Indian Ocean intensity record set by the 1999 Cyclone just prior to its Saturday landfall, according to the US Navy’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JTWC) in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii:

Even if Phailin doesn’t manage to hold the intensity record, the storm surge will be immense. An American specialist, Hal Needham, wrote on his personal blog that recent research shows that the strength of a storm 18 hours before landfall is the best predictor of its peak storm surge. In India and Bangladesh, where so many live only a few meters above sea level, the sheer size of Phailin nearly guarantees that hundreds of thousands of homes will be inundated. A storm surge of 1 to 3 meters could extend for hundreds of kilometers northeast of where the storm makes landfall. In short, Phailin is a humanitarian disaster in the making.

Despite international consensus that Phailin was among the most powerful storms ever to threaten the subcontinent, India’s Meteorology Department (IMD) continued to gauge the storm’s strength conservatively. In its latest forecast, the IMD predicted sustained winds of 210-220 kph and storm surge of up to 3.5 meters (11 feet) at landfall. These numbers are about 40 kph weaker than the JTWC’s most recent forecast, and in my opinion, the storm surge could be double what IMD is predicting.

One possible explanation for this discrepancy is a difference in philosophy of interpreting satellite data.

Late Friday, one real-time storm surge gauge on the Indian coastline was already approaching 1 meter of storm surge. India has already evacuated more than a quarter-million people in advance of Phailin’s landfall, amid reports of price gouging for vegetables and other supplies.