Typhoon Haiyan : Nature’s Early Warning System?
By Gwynne Dyer
November 17, 2013 "Information
Clearing House - "We've been telling
the rest of the world we don't want what's happening to us to
happen to everyone else," said Lucille L. Sering, the vice-chair
of the Philippines' Climate Commission, as the country struggled
to cope with the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. "This is your
early warning system ... we will all eventually be victims of
A full week after the typhoon roared through the eastern Visayas,
the number of people killed is still unknown. Ten thousand dead
is the number being used in the media, but the area around
Tacloban city alone may have lost that many. Many other parts of
Samar and Leyte islands are still inaccessible to both media and
But the question that people will be asking elsewhere is: Will
we really all become victims of this and similar phenomena? Is
this truly an early warning of storms so big and strong that
they will change the way we live? The answer, of course, is
As scientists always hasten to explain, you can never attribute
a particular weather event to climate change with complete
confidence. Normal variations in the weather include occasional
extreme events as destructive as all but the very worst storms
that you would see in a world that was, say, 2 degrees C warmer.
The difference is that in a warmer world, you will see a lot
more of these extreme events.
But consider this. The Philippines is the most-exposed large
country in the world to tropical cyclones. Their tracks most
often take them across northern Luzon or the eastern Visayas,
and about six to nine of them make landfall each year. They do a
lot of damage, but by and large Filipinos have learned to ride
them out. However, you cannot just ride out something as big as
What did most of the killing in Samar and Leyte last week was
not the high winds (although they stripped off almost every roof
in the affected areas). It was the "storm surge" that submerged
coastal regions to the height of a two-story building. The
pressure at the centre of the typhoon was so low that a "hump"
of water six metres high was pushed up beneath the eye and
travelled with it.
Shelters are not much good against that sort of thing unless (as
in Bangladesh) you start building them on elevated platforms.
Even then, you may decide that you want to move elsewhere if
your city is going to be inundated and destroyed every 10 years
or so. The east coast of Luzon is very sparsely populated for
precisely this reason, and this may be the future that awaits
the eastern Visayas as well if storms of this scale become more
The very worst typhoon that hit the Philippines since detailed
records began in the 19th century was Thelma, which killed about
5,100 people in 1991. But of the next worst nine, all of which
killed over a thousand people, six have happened in the past
decade: 2004, 2006, 2008, 2011, 2012, and 2013.
So Haiyan may really be an early warning of what is to come, not
just for the Philippines but for China and Japan, Burma and
Bangladesh, the Windward Islands and Florida — indeed, for any
coastal area that is within 1,000 kilometres of the usual tracks
of tropical storms. And at some point, people will decide that
it's just not worth living in such constant danger. They will
become, for want of a better word, "climate refugees".
In some areas, it will be frequent megastorms that drive them
out. In other areas it will be drought and desertification, or
heat so great that it kills the crops that people depend on.
There are going to be a lot of refugees, and not many places
that are willing to let them in.
Lucille Sering is right: this is an early warning of how the
warming will unfold, and what the impacts on human societies
will be. But we are getting lots of early warnings, and so far
we are managing to ignore them all.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are
published in 45 countries. - email@example.com
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