Pressure Drop

Exploring—and ignoring—climate chaos in the South Pacific.

By Simon Winchester

Typhoon Haiyan approaching Vietnam, 2013. © NASA; image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, Lance/Eosdis Modis Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC.

Naval officers of advanced rank are usually a circumspect group, their caution born of many years of doing battle with the caprices of the sea. But in March 2013 Adm. Samuel Locklear III, the American four-star flag officer who at the time was in charge of all American forces in and around the Pacific Ocean—328,000 Navy, Army, Marine, and Air Force personnel, stationed in docks and barracks and airdromes ranged around 52 percent of the planet’s surface—made an unusual pronouncement.

Usually, and in common with his predecessors as the chief of U.S. Pacific Command, the admiral, just winding up his fortieth year with the senior service, would recite at briefings and at hearings on Capitol Hill from a Pentagon-approved hymn sheet of threats to regional peace. There were always, in the short term, the villainous generals of North Korea, the devious graybeards of China, and the architects of various territorial disputes involving pointless islands claimed by Japan on the one hand, and by Russia, South Korea, and China on the other, all likely to trigger some kind of a brouhaha sooner or later. There were also the manifold possibilities for mayhem from the jihadists or Maoists or others known to be bent on destabilizing matters in Jakarta, or Dhaka, or southern Mindanao, or a score of other Pacific places known for their feverish political dispositions.

We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.

—D.H. Lawrence, 1928

But in the spring of 2013, these usual suspects were not for Admiral Locklear, and at a defense conference at Harvard that spring, he broke form. Political disputations were not, he said, the principal threat to his area of responsibility (which stretches from Karachi to San Diego, from Nome to Hobart, and includes 64 million square miles of sea). Most critical was, in fact, the climate.

Significant upheaval related to the warming planet, Locklear declared, “is probably the most likely thing that is going to happen that will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about.”

He promptly bolstered his claim. His staff officers—most especially his weather analysts—had detected significant changes in the frequency and violence of recent Pacific typhoons. “Weather patterns are more severe than they have been in the past,” he told his now-rapt listeners. “We are on super-typhoon twenty-seven or twenty-eight this year in the western Pacific. The average is about seventeen.” And such new typhoon clusterings suggest major changes to the climate in the region—changes that pose the greatest of all security threats in the region.

 

Whether the admiral spoke with authority or not—he did so just as the latest El Niño event began to show signs of creating another episode of meteorological madness around the eastern Pacific—has never been properly addressed. No Pentagon official has repudiated his assertion; but on the other hand, while it had once been thought possible that Locklear’s career might continue upward—that he might become chief of naval operations or chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, quite natural progressions for many of the previous PACOM commanders—it never did. So he now lives in blameless retirement, with his distinguished maritime career culminating in five sentences about climate that mark the only memorable public remarks he ever made.

But was he right? Eight months after he made his remarks, a fast-developing and monumentally destructive storm named Haiyan suggested that there may be legitimacy to his claim.

Haiyan was first spotted by four duty officers who arrived for their night shift on the early evening of November 1, 2013, in the drab Pearl Harbor building that houses the offices of Pacific Command’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center. The center’s official remit is to provide storm warnings for Admiral Locklear’s fleet of warships, and on November 2 satellite images showed a disorganized cluster of squalls about 250 miles to the southeast of the tiny island of Pohnpei, in Micronesia—and that it was changing its appearance fast. Within twenty-four hours the clouds had formed into the cyclonic appearance that betokens danger. The suddenness of its appearance and the fast lowering of pressure all struck the weather analysts as noteworthy.

They promptly sent a message to the operations room of Pacific Fleet headquarters: U.S. Navy ships in the area might want to know that wind and rain could affect any vessels heading for that quarter of the sea.

View of Market Street from the Union Ferry Building after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. © The Art Archive at Art Resource. 

By November 4, the now swirling clouds had been designated Tropical Storm 31W. The next day the swirls had grown much more powerful, and the storm was upgraded to full typhoon status. It was given the pre-assigned name Haiyan—the Chinese word for petrel, a bird that in mariners’ lore is associated with foul weather. The fast-gathering beast by now appeared to be traveling directly toward the barrier wall of the Philippine islands—where the local weather agency, following its own naming rules, had perversely decided to call the storm Yolanda.

The situation was becoming alarming. The American and Japanese weather forecasters, and later those watching the big weather radars in China and Hong Kong, were giving the local civil defense agencies at least some days’ warning, allowing them to prepare for what was clearly going to be a storm of a power seldom seen before at sea, and perhaps never experienced before on land. Evacuations were ordered, and people began to stream away from the eastern coasts, where the storm was predicted to land.

The forecasts were right, nearly to the minute. Typhoon Haiyan struck head-on into the Philippines, hitting the islands of Samar and Leyte almost simultaneously, on November 8. By the time it reached land, it had become the fiercest typhoon to have done so in the world’s recorded history. When the northern eye wall of the storm struck the village of Guiuan those anemometers that hadn’t whirled off scale recorded wind gusts of 196 mph—greater by far than anything previously known.

The physical and human damage was terrifying—although the warnings and the accuracy of the forecasts helped keep down the total of human casualties. Some six thousand people were killed, 27,000 were injured, more than a thousand were missing. Whole cities were flattened, every building reduced to debris as if by an earthquake or atomic bomb. The city of Tacloban, the biggest in the region, was unrecognizable after being hit first by the full force of the storm. It was then swamped by the seawater of a thirteen-foot storm surge that followed.

There was a coincidence in the Philippines: Haiyan’s landfall in 2013 as the most savage of all the world’s storms was made along the coast of Leyte Gulf, site in 1944 of the most savage of all the world’s naval battles. Two nearby villages were named for Douglas MacArthur, the general being a hero in these parts. His “I Shall Return” promise is commemorated by a bronze statue that depicts the general and his staff striding through ankle-deep waters to resume control of the Philippines; it stands by the beach where it happened, in the small town of Palo. All three of these places, Palo and the two MacArthur villages, were damaged by the typhoon.

American military forces were heavily involved in dealing with Haiyan’s violence, seventy years after that great naval battle. Thanks to the accuracy of the forecasts, U.S. Marine and Navy ships were already on standby in Japan and Okinawa, or else they were sheltering out at sea. Once the signal came that the State Department had answered Manila’s official request for help, the American-led rescue operation got underway.

Handscroll from the Illustrated Legends of the Kitano Tenjin Shrine, Japan, late thirteenth century. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fletcher Fund, 1925.

Operation Damayan, the $21 million rescue operation, formally began the next morning, November 9. The night before, however, when Tacloban was still crawling out from under the storm’s wreckage, a flotilla of helicopters brought in members of a U.S. Special Forces team who were already in-country, secretly helping to deal with a long-running Maoist insurgency.

More than eight hundred marines from the Third Expeditionary Brigade in Okinawa were on the ground in the Philippines that afternoon. A survey ship already working in the gulf was on station next day, later joined by a submarine tender filled with emergency supplies and drinking water. The USS George Washington, a nuclear-powered carrier, arrived on November 14 with her attendant strike group of destroyers and frigates. She anchored in the bay for the next eight days, serving as headquarters for a relief operation that ultimately involved 2,200 U.S. military personnel; thirteen warships; twenty-one helicopters; and the distribution of two thousand tons of American food, blankets, tents, generators, and, water purifiers.

The sight of the warship, and of the squadrons of lesser vessels anchored around her—which later included two British ships, a destroyer and a carrier—served as a reminder, important in the propaganda wars, that American military influence in the world is not only predicated by war and the projection of hard power. This was “soft power” at its most effective—and once the immediate storm crisis was over and the American carrier had slipped off back into patrolling the China Sea, Washington propagandists pointed out how little the Chinese had done to help. Beijing had initially offered a laughable $100,000. Only when stung by the world’s response to their seeming niggardliness did they increase the aid to $1.6 million and send down from Shanghai a new hospital ship on its maiden voyage. It arrived too late to be of much use.

 

Haiyan, the admiral might have pointed out, was only the latest storm in a sequence of climatological disasters that had started to spiral out of control as much as four decades before. The first in this cycle of catastrophes occurred south of the equator and flattened the Australian city of Darwin on Christmas Day, 1974. It was named Cyclone Tracy, and there has never been a more destructive event in all of Australian history.

Ten thousand of Darwin’s houses—80 percent of the city’s homes—were destroyed. They were nearly instantly demolished, reduced almost to matchwood and pulverized concrete. The process was identical, house after Christmas-decorated house. First the roof was ripped off its stanchions and whirled away into the rain-soaked night. Then the windows shattered, slicing people with slivers of glass. The walls would next blow out—people would speak of running in darkness and panic from room to room, locating by feel the bathroom doors and racing inside in the belief that the smallest room would be the strongest—only to find the outside wall gone, exposed to the darkness beyond, a frenzy of gales and rain.

Calamities are of two kinds: misfortune to ourselves, and good fortune to others.

—Ambrose Bierce, 1906

Everything failed. The telephones were out. Electricity was down. Antennas were blown down. Aircraft had been tossed about like chaff, smashed beyond recognition. Ships broke loose in the harbor, and sank or drifted far from their moorings, useless. Scores of people who might have helped were away for the Christmas holiday. The broadcast stations had only skeleton crews and no light or water—though one of them, the local Australian Broadcasting Corporation station, managed to get messages out to an affiliate station in the Queensland outback. This tenuous link provided the only communication Darwin had with the outside world for three days after the catastrophe.

Word got out late on Christmas afternoon. It was then that the rest of Australia came to realize that its most northerly capital city had been flattened by a terrible storm. Ministers in Canberra—and others in Sydney and Melbourne and Brisbane—were roused from turkey- and mince-pie-induced lunchtime slumbers to be told of the devastation thousands of miles away.

And when the first rescuers got there, they all made the same comparison: Hiroshima or Nagasaki. The comparison is invidious, of course: the casualty tolls were incomparable (seventy-one were killed by Tracy, not even 0.1 percent of those who died in Japan). But the physical devastation of Darwin was total, and the images resembled the familiar photographs of the two postnuclear cities. Roads were no more than pathways through scores of square miles of rubble. People were wandering around glassy-eyed, bewildered. Hundreds of dogs, frightened and unfed, emerged from the ruins to forage. There was a threat of typhoid and cholera. Police had to find guns—shotguns, mainly, from nearby sheep stations—to deal with looters.

In the end almost the entire city had to be evacuated. Forty-one thousand of the 47,000 were without home, shelter, water, food, medicine, communication. The government arranged shuttles of aircraft—slowly at first, because the ruined Darwin airport could accommodate only one flight every ninety minutes. Over the next two weeks, more than 35,000 people were flown or driven out of the city, and by the time the year ended, it had been all but emptied. More than half of those who left never came back.

 

Between the bookends of these two storms, Tracy and Haiyan, are forty years of statistics that underpin Admiral Locklear’s argument. Not that his stated concern over the number of storms that gather within his area of operation was meant to imply that storms in lesser oceans are any less daunting. Notorious monsters like Katrina, Camille, Andrew, Ike, Sandy, Hugo, Wilma, Rita, the Labor Day hurricane of 1935, the Okeechobee hurricane of 1928—all of these were great Atlantic storms of historic proportions, and all were hugely destructive and frightening.

“Destructive” and “frightening” are not true measurements, however. Nor is the most commonly used metric of a storm’s financial cost. In America, Atlantic hurricanes tend to be described by their eventual price—the quoted losses for the insurance companies of $108 billion in and around New Orleans in 2005 have made Katrina come to be seen as the absolute worst storm in American history. But cost can hardly be a neutral descriptor: storms that strike American cities are expensive because they wreck expensive things. Storms like Haiyan that strike isolated cities in the eastern Philippines may cause just as much devastation, but the dollar amounts are much lower. Human damage, of course, is different—but still that is not neutral either, since a typhoon hitting a crowded slum will kill far more than one that sinks ships and swamps atolls in the middle of the ocean.

The key number that the World Meteorological Organization has chosen as a baseline for assessing a storm’s strength is 925 millibars. Any storm eye with a pressure measured as less than 925 mb is one for the books, intense enough to be worthy of record. And looking at the Pacific Ocean using that measure alone, it becomes clear that it is beyond any other when it comes to playing host to the number of the world’s truly intense tropical storms.

Drawing from Stereoscope, by William Kentridge, 1998–99. © William Kentridge, courtesy of the artist. 

In the Atlantic since 1924, nineteen hurricanes qualified for the list of storms with eye pressures of less than 925 mb. Just one out of five of those—the hurricanes known as Labor Day 1935, Allen, Gilbert, Rita, and Wilma—were super-intense, with eye pressures below 900 mb. Neither Camille and Katrina managed to figure below 900 mb. Hurricane Sandy, infamous in recent New York and New Jersey lore, did not make the WMO cut, registering a comparatively benign 940 mb in its nonspinning center.

The western north Pacific now plays host to the worst of the world’s low-pressure storms. Since 1950 there have been fifty-nine fully formed Pacific typhoons north of the equator, and in the western south Pacific and off Australia there have been twenty-five similarly rated cyclones since 1974. In the Atlantic the rate of occurrences of sub-925-mb storms runs at about once every five years. In the western Pacific they are much more numerous, with about one every year. And, eccentrically, a recent Pacific hurricane off western Mexico named Patricia in October 2015 had sustained winds of 200 mph and a minimum pressure of 879 mb. It was small and vicious, but did less harm than feared.

Ultra-low-pressure storms occur five times more often in the Pacific than elsewhere in the world. They are generally much more intense—with thirty-seven of the northwest Pacific’s fifty-nine having pressures lower than 900 mb. Typhoon Tip, the deepest of them all, recorded a low pressure of just 870 mb, and it enjoyed the unique distinction of being both the deepest and widest of all tropical storms on record, with an edge-to-edge spread of 1,380 miles—meaning that if superimposed on the United States, it would have extended from the Mexican to the Canadian borders and from Yosemite to the Mississippi River, with its eye directly above Denver.

 

And why is there this current surge in activity? There is the beginning of an answer. All, insist the forecasters, can be traced to the ever-increasing amount of thermal energy absorbed into the Pacific Ocean. Current belief holds that by the end of the twenty-first century the global temperature, and the temperature of the Pacific, will have risen by 3 degrees centigrade—maybe a little less, if all adhere to the recent Paris Agreement. The sea levels in the region will have risen by as much as three feet. And such an increase will inevitably cause islands and low-lying peninsulas to submerge and oceanic storms to intensify and become more numerous.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony, by the workshop of Herri met de Bles, c. 1550. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, bequest of Harry G. Sperling, 1961.

But will such natural developments—anthropogenically triggered, maybe, but essentially natural developments—present a major security challenge?

Admiral Locklear and his staff clearly believe what they say: that so far as the human population of the Pacific is concerned, danger to life and limb is more urgently at risk these days from cyclones than it is from Chinese saber-rattling, that maritime inundation is more pressing a concern than invasion; and that countries can be destabilized and civil unrest can be multiplied if the affected nations take no heed of the mayhem set to explode around them in the years ahead.

The admiral’s views—revolutionary in comparison with the usual commentaries—have not been properly examined, and probably never will be. His final appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee was, so far as this issue was concerned, a travesty. Only one member of the committee addressed the issue, and then in the most perfunctory way: Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, author of a book that decries climate-change warnings as no more than a grotesque hoax, had derided the admiral for daring to issue such a warning. The only person who was competent to change the world’s climate, he said, was God.

When Locklear attempted to splutter some reasoning behind his own argument, the senator cut him off abruptly. Let’s return, he said, to the urgent matter—of China.

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