Skip to main content

How deadly storms claim a bigger toll

By Adam Sobel, Special to CNN
November 11, 2013 -- Updated 0224 GMT (1024 HKT)
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
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1928 GMT (0328 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT