Hurricanes (in some places called typhoons or cyclones) bring a triple threat: high winds, floods, and possible tornadoes.But there’s another “triple” in play: they’re getting stronger, affecting a larger stretch of coastline, and more Americans are moving into hurricane-prone areas.

haiyanNearly every year since 1851, at least one hurricane has reached the United States. Typhoons are quite common in the Pacific, with 13 typhoons already occurring in 2013, causing 8.3 billion in damage, and those figures do not include Super Typhoon Haiyan, as it’s too early to calculates losses.

The storms begin in the tropical regions around the equator. Worldwide, approximately 40-50 storms will develop into hurricanes. As a storm moves across the ocean, it picks up warm air from the surface and dispenses cooler air aloft. As it makes landfall, it loses momentum.

Winds of up to 185 miles per hour are just one damaging aspect. Heavy flooding also causes significant damage. In the United States, hurricanes cause an average of 20 deaths and $5.1 billion in damage each year.

Hurricane forecasting continues to improve in accuracy and the amount of warning provided. However, it remains an inexact science because of the number of factors that can influence a hurricane’s direction and strength. Storms may increase in intensity rapidly, leading to a significant change in recommendations for how the population should prepare. Hurricane Charlie in 2004 strengthened from a Category 2 to a Category 4 in five hours. A Category 2 hurricane is considered extremely dangerous, with winds of 110 miles per hour; a Category 4 contains winds up to 156 miles per hour and is considered catastrophic.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is in the midst of a 10-year program to improve the storm tracking, intensity, and storm surge predictions. The result of the Hurricane Forecast Improvement Program (HFIP) would be longer lead times with greater certainty, and increased public confidence in the hurricane forecast.

How To Help

  • Provide disaster planning resources for vulnerable populations. The poor residents of a coastal community often do not have the resources to evacuate, or to prepare their homes for a hurricane. Programs that educate them on hurricane threats, help them develop evacuation plans, and retrofit their homes could lessen the impact of a storm on this population.
  • Ensure that hurricane preparedness material is translated into multiple languages. Many island nations and Mexico also are prone to hurricanes. Sharing information and resources in native languages can help more people prepare.
  • Support programs that provide psychosocial assistance. In the initial days after 2012’s Typhoon Bopha, the United Nations reported that many adults were unable to assist in recovery efforts because of the shock of the event. Children were left unattended, crying and begging at the roadside.
  • Fund environmental efforts to protect and improve coral reefs in coastal areas. The World Disaster Report 2012 reported that the Philippines could protect about a fifth of its population by improving protection of coral reefs. They are a primary line of defense against coastal hazards like typhoons.
  • As the hurricane belt expands, help prepare those in more northern coastal regions. The hurricane threat zone is expanding due to climate change, which puts many more into the path. While those in southern coastal areas are familiar with  hurricane preparedness, individuals and municipalities farther north aren’t as accustomed to the storms.

Key Facts

  • Hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons are all the same weather phenomenon. Scientists call these storms different things depending on where they occur. In the Atlantic and northern Pacific, the storms are called “hurricanes,” after the Caribbean god of evil, named Hurrican. In the northwestern Pacific, the same powerful storms are called “typhoons.” In the southeastern Indian Ocean and southwestern Pacific, they are called “severe tropical cyclones.” In the northern Indian Ocean, they’re called “severe cyclonic storms.” In the southwestern Indian Ocean, they’re just “tropical cyclones.”
  • To be classified as a hurricane, typhoon, or cyclone, a storm must reach wind speeds of at least 74 miles per hour (119 kilometers per hour). If a hurricane’s winds reach speeds of 111 miles per hour (179 kilometers per hour), it is upgraded to an “intense hurricane.” If a typhoon hits 150 miles per hour (241 kilometers per hour)—as Typhoon Haiyan did– it is classified as a Super Typhoon.
  • More people are moving into harm’s way. Currently, more than 50 percent of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of the coast, and roughly 180 million people visit the coast each year.
  • Storms are increasing in intensity due to climate change. Since the 1970s, hurricane intensity has increased 70-80 percent while the length of storms has increased 30 percent. Scientists correlate this to a warmer surface sea temperature. They predict that for every two degrees of sea change, wind speeds will increase by 10 percent.
  • Hurricanes bring more rainfall, increasing flood risks. Because warmer air contains more moisture, as temperatures rise, scientists predict rainfall increases of 10-31 percent. In addition, changes in circulation patterns cause hurricanes to move slower, meaning more rainfall in a single location.

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