Skip to main content

How deadly storms claim a bigger toll

By Adam Sobel, Special to CNN
updated 9:24 PM EST, Sun November 10, 2013
A man reconstructs his house in the bay of Tacloban, Leyte province, Philippines, on Wednesday, November 27, 2013. Typhoon Haiyan, one of the most powerful storms on record, hit the country's eastern seaboard on November 8, leaving a wide swath of destruction, including more than 5,000 deaths. A man reconstructs his house in the bay of Tacloban, Leyte province, Philippines, on Wednesday, November 27, 2013. Typhoon Haiyan, one of the most powerful storms on record, hit the country's eastern seaboard on November 8, leaving a wide swath of destruction, including more than 5,000 deaths.
HIDE CAPTION
Photos: Typhoon Haiyan
Photos: Typhoon Haiyan
Photos: Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Photos: Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
81
82
83
84
85
86
87
88
89
90
91
92
93
94
95
96
97
98
99
100
101
102
103
104
105
106
107
108
109
110
111
112
113
114
115
116
117
118
119
120
121
122
123
124
125
126
127
128
129
130
131
132
133
134
135
136
137
138
139
140
141
142
143
144
145
146
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Typhoon caused devastating damage to parts of the Philippines
  • Higher temperatures are likely to increase power of severe storms, says Adam Sobel
  • Greater population living along the shore leads to bigger toll when storms strike, he says
  • Sobel: Higher sea level, a consequence of warming, magnifies flooding

Editor's note: Adam Sobel, a professor at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, is an atmospheric scientist. He studies extreme events -- such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts and heat waves -- and the risks these pose to human society.

(CNN) -- Two days ago, an intensely powerful typhoon ripped through the midsection of the Philippines. Internationally known as Haiyan, the weakened but still dangerous storm has plowed into Vietnam. But history will record this as a Filipino disaster. I will call the typhoon by its Filipino name, Yolanda.

Yolanda might have been the most powerful land-falling tropical cyclone -- this being the generic scientific term as they are called typhoons, hurricanes or simply cyclones in different parts of the world -- ever recorded by meteorologists. More analysis will be needed to finalize that ruling. But it really doesn't matter now to the millions of people in the rubble of Yolanda's wake.

The strongest winds, in the narrow ring of Yolanda's perfectly circular eyewall, passed directly through Tacloban city, a provincial capital with more than 200,000 inhabitants. Photos coming from Tacloban show almost complete devastation.

Adam Sobel
Adam Sobel

An accurate death toll will take time, but it is nearly impossible to imagine that it won't be in the thousands. Numbers of more than 10,000, as in some early estimates, seem possible. Many, perhaps most, were not killed by the winds but were drowned by deep storm surges.

Yolanda may have broken records, and its direct hit on a major city was excruciatingly bad luck. But tropical cyclone death tolls in the thousands or higher are not nearly rare enough in the developing world.

In 2008, Cyclone Nargis likely killed more than 100,000 in Myanmar. And the Philippines, right in the world's worst cyclone highway, are hit very often. In December, Typhoon Bopha, nearly as strong as Yolanda, hit the southern island of Mindanao and killed more than a thousand.

Does it seem, in fact, that these weather disasters are happening more often? Well, they are.

The damage caused by tropical cyclones has risen dramatically in the past century everywhere it has been assessed. But essentially all of that is attributable to development of vulnerable coastlines, rather than changes in the storms themselves.

The population of the Philippines, rich in vulnerable coastlines, has roughly doubled in the past 30 years. There as elsewhere, more people are simply exposed to danger.

In the U.S., dollar losses from our hurricanes have exploded. Large numbers of American casualties, though, have become rare, despite big increases in the numbers of potential victims along the coasts. (Katrina in 2005 was the exception that proves that rule.) Better forecasts, warnings and evacuation procedures, as well as tougher building codes and other infrastructure measures, have achieved that.

Improvements are starting to take hold in the developing world as well. When Cyclone Phailin hit India's west coast last month, there was reason to fear a repeat of the 1999 cyclone that hit nearby Orissa, killing 10,000.

Instead, good advance warning and evacuations (with help from a storm weaker than some anticipated) kept Phailin's casualty count low. In the Philippines, many hundreds of thousands were reported to have been evacuated ahead of Yolanda. As awful as the death toll will surely be, it could just as surely have been much higher.

But are population growth, development and emergency management the whole story? Or is this disaster also related to global warming?

Well, it is.

Climate scientists expect that tropical cyclones should become more powerful as the climate warms. There may or may not be more of them; there may well be fewer. But the chance of getting one as strong as Yolanda -- the very worst kind -- may well be increasing.

Global warming may already, in fact, have contributed to Yolanda's power. We can't see that in the data; the numbers and intensities of tropical cyclones naturally fluctuate too much from year to year for us to clearly identify a rising trend underneath that would show warming's influence with certainty.

But that doesn't mean it's not there. If the time comes that we can detect the warming signal in cyclone activity well enough to make definitive statements, it will be because the storms have intensified to a frightening degree -- and irreversibly so, for all practical purposes.

Sea level rise is a much more certain consequence of warming, already easily detectable. That alone will make flooding -- likely Yolanda's deadliest weapon -- a more severe consequence of storms as the sea starts higher before the surge.

Today, as the Philippines reels from Yolanda, climate is not the main story.

Our thoughts should be with the survivors and those rushing in to help them. The way to save people and property from tropical cyclones, in the near and medium-term, is to get them out of harm's way -- in the days before landfall to the extent that's possible; and, even better, by not putting them there in the first place. But the changes we are making to the climate are not likely to help.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Adam Sobel.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT