Typhoon Haiyan

East Asia likely to face stronger storms in future due to oceanic warming

Higher sea temperatures will increase typhoons' energy and prolong the season, scientists warn

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 November, 2013, 11:09pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 April, 2015, 8:28am

Scientists fear that stronger, more frequent typhoons will pummel East Asia in the coming years, crippling vital power and transport infrastructure in coastal areas.

Government officials and scientists have struggled to provide accurate forecasts because of technological limits and insufficient data. Further frustrating their work is minimal Chinese government investment in oceanic research. Beijing has poured more money into Pacific Ocean research recently in the hope that it can improve the region's ability to forecast typhoons, but the measures might take years to become effective.

We need not only sensors on the [ocean’s] surface but underneath the water

The latest calamity inflicted on the Philippines shocked the world, not only because of the sheer magnitude of the storm but because the typhoon unleashed its fury in November - a month after the end of the typical typhoon season, which runs May through to October.

Super Typhoon Haiyan was probably the strongest tropical storm recorded, with wind speeds racing up to 315km/h. It could be a sign of storms to come.

"The energy of typhoons comes from the warmth of the ocean. The warmer the ocean, the stronger the typhoon," said Professor Zhou Jifu, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. "With the increase of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, the sea temperature is likely to continue to increase."

The energy of typhoons comes from the warmth of the ocean. The warmer the ocean, the stronger the typhoon
Professor Zhou Jifu, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Higher ocean temperatures are expected to prolong the typhoon season, stretching a period that's typically confined to summer months into the spring and autumn, Zhou said.

Government and industrial leaders have been desperate to gather accurate data that would better predict typhoon activity - months, if not years, in advance.

But that data is limited now and the best scientists can do now is guess because of technological limits.

To improve forecasting, the Chinese government has deployed a large number of buoys measuring wind and water temperatures, among other data points, in the western Pacific Ocean. But it might take decades to produce a large quantity of detailed data to guard against storms well before they hit, Zhou said.

Zhou's work is funded by the government. His team is examining the likely strength and frequency of future typhoons to estimate their possible impact on China's coastal infrastructure. The research is ongoing, and no results have been released yet.

"Preliminary results are alarming," he said.

His team hopes to produce reliable annual forecasts that could be a reference for government and businesses. For now, that plan is "mission impossible" because of technological constraints.

Wang Yuan, a leading typhoon expert at Nanjing University in Jiangsu , said that once a year the government invited leaders of many research centres to meet in Beijing to share estimates of extreme weather patterns in the coming year.

The state scientists had raw data and reliable mathematical models to predict droughts and floods, but there had been little information and few reliable models to predict typhoons, Wang said.

"With current technology, any estimate of a typhoon beyond 15 days is a wild guess. Some people are trying [to create] two-week forecasts, but they have largely remained experimental," he said.

Scientific predictions have been limited by the lack of data about typhoons, said Wu Lixin, a professor with the Physical Oceanography Laboratory in the Ocean University of China in Qingdao, Shandong.

The storms' internal structures are not well understood because satellites had difficulty seeing through thick clouds, he said. Observational buoys in the western Pacific have been unable to provide high-resolution images - a direct result of minimal investment by the government, Wu said.

"We need not only sensors on the [ocean's] surface but underneath the water to get a full picture of a typhoon's formation, and we need a lot of them," he said.

To model weather patterns, scientists need long-term data and the information collected by Chinese buoys might take decades to become useful, Wu said.

Scientists have urged governments to better prepare for stronger and more numerous storms. They warn it will be costly to buttress, repair and rebuild energy facilities, especially wind farms and offshore oil and gas platforms, across the region.