Super Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines at 4am local time today with winds near 195 mph, making it the strongest tropical cyclone to make landfall in recorded world history, according to satellite estimates. That astounding claim will need to be verified by actual measurements at ground level, which should be collected over the coming days.
The storm (known as Yolanda in the Philippines) has officially maxed out the Dvorak scale, which is used to measure strong strength using satellites. That means Haiyan has approached the theoretical maximum intensity for any storm, anywhere. From the latest NOAA bulletin:
DVORAK TECHNIQUE MAKES NO ALLOWANCE FOR AN EYE EMBEDDED SO DEEPLY IN CLOUD TOPS AS COLD [AS THIS]
Put another way, the most commonly used satellite-based intensity scale just wasn’t designed to handle a storm this strong. At its peak, one real-time estimate of the storm’s intensity actually ticked slightly above the maximum to 8.1 on an 8.0 scale. This meteorologist, for one, has never seen that before.
Thousands were evacuated in the Philippines as the disaster-weary country prepared for impact. Ten regions in the central part of the country were under a Signal 4 warning, the nation’s highest typhoon alert level.
Just last month, an area just south of Haiyan’s predicted path suffered a massive M7.2 earthquake, resulting in more than 100 deaths and widespread damage. That same region will experience strong winds and heavy rain from this typhoon.
According to the US Navy’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JTWC), based in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, at landfall, the storm packed sustained winds of 195mph (310kph). Gusts reached a mind-blowing 235mph (380kph). That’s good enough to rank Haiyan as almost assuredly the strongest storm ever to make landfall in the Philippines.
The Philippines is the most typhoon-ridden nation on Earth, getting walloped or enduring close calls on average of 19 times per year.
It’s nearly inconceivable that any weather station would survive such conditions for very long to verify, so we may never know exactly how strong this storm was. There have only been a handful of storms anywhere on Earth (pdf) that have reached this estimated intensity—and only three since 1969. Such strong storms usually remain out at sea where wind speed verification is impossible without aircraft.
If verified, the storm’s wind speed at landfall would top the sitting world record holder, the Atlantic’s Hurricane Camille, which hit Mississippi in 1969 with 190 mph winds.
That’s certainly foreboding enough, but the humanitarian disaster that may unfold in the storm’s aftermath could be immense. Haiyan passed very near Tacloban, a city of a quarter million people, and Cebu, a city of nearly one million people:
The country’s meteorological service, PAGASA, also supports a storm surge prediction model (appropriately named project NOAH) that estimates storm surge could have been up to 5.2 meters (17 feet) in Leyte, where the storm first made landfall. A storm surge of this magnitude—rare for the Philippines—would be especially devastating for coastal areas.
Heavy rain, expected to approach 16 inches (400mm), will almost assuredly cause mudslides over the mountainous islands of the Philippines.