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Was Typhoon Haiyan a Record Storm?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Breaking news can sometime include mistakes, and breaking news emerging from disaster areas can be fraught with errors. Journalists try to do follow-up stories to correct facts, and until then, other journalists reporting on the same event often resort to general language to cover the vagaries. So it has been with Typhoon Haiyan. Stories in the past several days have consistently called the event “one of the strongest storms in history.” Well, here’s what we know with a little hindsight and expert commentary.

Haiyan is the strongest storm to ever make landfall, according to Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at Weather Underground, a Web site often quoted by the best weather experts. Masters knows severe weather data better than anyone I’ve encountered, and his blog is filled with fascinating facts. The “strength” of a cyclone, typhoon or hurricane—they’re all the same storm, just different names used in different parts of the world—is determined by the top speed of sustained winds, not gusts. According to Masters, Haiyan had sustained winds of 190 to 195 mph when it struck the Philippines, making it the strongest cyclone ever at the time of landfall.

It was also the fourth strongest cyclone ever recorded, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Hawaii. Three others had higher sustained winds while out at sea, then weakened before hitting land: Typhoon Nancy in 961, with 215 mph winds; Typhoon Violet in 1961, with 205 mph winds; and Typhoon Ida, in 1958, with 200 mph winds. All three eventually hit Japan. The second strongest storm at the time of landfall was Hurricane Camille, which struck Mississippi bearing 190 mph winds.

It’s important to realize that even a modest rise in speed can cause a huge increase in damage, because the power in wind increases as the cube of speed; a wind that is twice as strong delivers eight times as much power. Camille obliterated towns and the landscape. If the same storm hit Miami or New York City today, Masters says, the damage could be half a trillion dollars. Building codes in southern Florida require the highest wind resistance in the world, Masters says, yet the rules have only been in effect for a couple of decades and many buildings are older than that.

Despite destructive winds, a storm’s surge—the height of the sea above the tide—can inflict the heaviest damage and kill the most people. Storm surges vary a lot even among the most powerful storms, because the rise in ocean water is driven not just by the wind speed but how long high winds are sustained, how fast the storm moves forward, whether a storm makes landfall during high or low tide, and especially the shape of the sea floor leading up to the coast. A broad, gradual sea bottom like that in the Gulf of Mexico leading up to New Orleans can allow water to build up more than a sea floor that drops abruptly, like that east of Florida.

It is difficult to determine the height of a storm surge until scientists can get out into ruined neighborhoods and measure the high water marks—which can vary along even a fairly short stretch of coast. As of today, estimates for Haiyan’s surge are between 15 and 20 feet where it first made landfall. Hurricane Sandy’s surge topped out at about 13 feet in New York City and northern New Jersey. Hurricane Katrina’s surge was 24 to 28 feet along the Louisiana Coast.

These monster storms often raise the notion that scientists should expand the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale. A category 1 storm has winds of 74 to 95 mph, and the stages rise every 20 mph or so. But because a category 5 storm is rated at 157 mph or higher, it makes sense to some observers to create a new category 6 for storms like Haiyan that are so far above that speed.

Masters doesn’t see the benefit, however, and even sees a potential pitfall. Anything higher than category 5, he says, would not make warnings or evacuation orders any stronger or alter actions that emergency personnel would take. “It wouldn’t help as far as getting people to do the right thing,” he explains. “And if there were a category 6 storm, and it was downgraded to category 5, people might say, ‘Oh, it’s weakening.’ But category 5 is already catastrophic.”

Image: Courtesy NOAA

Mark Fischetti About the Author: Mark Fischetti is a senior editor at Scientific American who covers energy, environment and sustainability issues. Follow on Twitter @markfischetti.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. viviogn291 5:59 pm 11/12/2013

    My Uncle Gabriel got Acura from only workin on a pc. find here………. JOBS61.¢øm

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  2. 2. Carlyle 6:54 pm 11/12/2013

    The tornado though severe was neither record strength nor record death toll. Why does this magazine persist with alarmist reporting that is often refuted within days? More accurate reporting can be found in supermarket give away papers.
    The Philippine death toll is put at 2000 to 2500 people according to their President. No where near the record death toll of approximately 300000 from earlier times.

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  3. 3. agnes.balota 10:52 pm 11/12/2013

    You did not mention the shape and characteristics of the coastline as a factor that affects the strength of a storm surge. Tacloban City is in a bay and storm surge could have been funneled from Leyte Gulf to San Pedro Bay where Tacloban is located…

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  4. 4. Turkewitsch 3:15 pm 11/15/2013

    Carlyle, it was not a tornado but rather a typhoon. Alarmist reporting often contains misinformation and misstatements, such as those contained in your post.

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  5. 5. jct405 8:01 am 11/16/2013

    I cannot find data concerning the width of Super Typhoon Haiyan on the ground. Wind field data. This spring’s Oklahoma tornadoes were maybe 1.5 mile to 2.5 miles, I think, in width. As compared to Haiyan’s for which I have read “covered an area the size of Montana.”

    Wind speeds are critical. But over what breadth of geography?

    Am I missing something? If the comparisons I am seeing hold, Haiyan’s significance goes well beyond wind speed.

    Anyone? (Except, of course, Carlyle, who apparently is on retainer from the Koch’s).

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  6. 6. Postman1 11:21 pm 11/16/2013

    jct405 You really can’t compare hurricanes/typhoons with tornadoes. Besides size, there is where they form, how they are formed, wind speed, when they are formed, clusters vs single, and more.

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  7. 7. Dr. Strangelove 8:24 pm 11/17/2013

    Montana is 900 km wide. Typhoon Haiyan was probably less than 480 km in diameter. It made landfall in Mindoro island, Philippines, which is 240 km from Manila. But it was not felt in Manila so its radius was less than 240 km.

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  8. 8. mpuckette 1:05 pm 11/19/2013

    Based on evidence gleaned from Cuban meteorological records that year (Cuba had a sophisticated weather agency at the time) and piecemeal data from observers on the Guld Coast, including one in Galveston Texas, the unnamed storm of 1900 was a Category 5 storm. It obliterated the island of Galveston, and is still listed as the most deadly hurricane in U.S. history, responsible for over 6000 deaths.

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  9. 9. Valibrarian 8:32 am 11/29/2013

    The death toll cited above by Carlyle has been shown to be inaccurate. President Aquino’s estimate of 2000 dead was apparently motivated by a desire to deflect criticism from slow government response to the Haiyan disaster. The actual count of dead bodies is now over 5000, and at least an additional 1700 Filinos are missing and likely dead, yielding a likely death toll around 7000. It is important for citizens observing disasters to recognize lying from government officials.

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  10. 10. DadamR 4:27 pm 12/9/2013

    A very good article that enlighted me alot about storms which, for me is an unexplored area.

    Moreover, I would like to point out that Typhoon Nancy was not recorded in 961 but 1961. I understand it’s a typo and I don’t really consider it a grave problem however someone else might.

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  11. 11. salvatoremeeks 10:20 pm 01/22/2014

    Please do watch, like and share. Enjoy ! :)

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  12. 12. rlynjaen 5:16 am 05/30/2014

    Haiyan may be the strongest typhoon that this generation had been encountered. It is evidently seen that it would take a long time for the survivors to recover. As a Filipino, it is good to know that there’s a lot of ways to help the Typhoon Haiyan survivors. We hope that the world will continue helping the survivors of the typhoon in the best way they can do. In addition to this, here’s a proposal of our project, “TACLOB” (here’s the link -> which is about creating livelihood for these survivors. We hope you’ll learn more about our initiative and help us support the Tacloban survivors. God bless us all!

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