There’s a grim picture in the Philippines right now. The country was just getting back on its feet from an earthquake that struck a week ago when yet another disaster overtook the island nation. On Nov. 8 the small country was hit by what many believe was the largest typhoon in history.
Authorities report as many as 10,000 lives were lost in the disaster. Children were ripped away from their parents and buildings came crashing down with wind gusts near 200 mph. More than 800,000 people were displaced from their homes. And with flooding and sewage problems running ramped, more than 2 million people were left in dire need of food and clean drinking water.
But the disaster could have been much worse. Because of improvements in weather monitoring and forecasting of the storm’s impact, the Philippines government was aware of the coming danger. Communities were able to evacuate or at least brace themselves for the storm.
Meteorologists point to rising ocean temperatures as the major cause of the massive typhoon, known as Haiyen. In the week before the typhoon began to build, temperatures in the ocean had risen steadily. Data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows ocean temperatures were 0.5 to 1 degree Celsius warmer than normal just east of the Philippines. This caused massive amounts of energy to be stored up and integrated through the water column. Once Haiyan began to build up in the Western Pacific, the energy was released, fueling the storm.
The Philippines government has said the massive typhoon was the result of climate change and has urged United Nations’ delegates to take emergency action to stop gridlocked climate talks.
“Science tells us that, simply, climate change will mean more intense tropical storms. As the Earth warms up, that would include the oceans. The energy that is stored in the waters off the Philippines will increase the intensity of typhoons and the trend we now see is that more destructive storms will be the new norm,” said Yeb Sano, head of the Philippines’ delegation to the UN.
Though UN delegates met for the 19th Conference of the Parties beginning Nov. 12 in Warsaw, Poland, countries have not committed to reaching an international climate deal until the conference meets in Paris in 2015. Meanwhile, countries such as the Philippines remain vulnerable to the effects of climate change without the resources to make necessary changes, such as improving the nation’s electricity infrastructure or emission reduction technologies.
A study by the scientific journal Nature in October suggests that more than 5 billion people will live in areas of the world affected by climate change by 2050. And it predicts that the countries that will first see its effects will be the ones least capable of responding.
The UN has a Green Climate Fund, which helps developing nations reduce their emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Richer countries have agreed to provide $100 billion to the fund starting in 2020, but for now little is being done to help combat climate change.
“The climate crisis is madness,” Sano said as he addressed the UN’s 190 delegates. “We can stop this madness. Right here in Warsaw. Typhoons such as Haiyan and its impacts represent a sobering reminder to the international community that we cannot afford to procrastinate on climate action.”
But scientists caution against singling out Haiyan as a climate event. The truth is these types of natural disasters have always occurred. In the United States the worst hurricane on record slammed into the coast of Galveston, Texas, in 1900, long before the thought of climate change crossed anyone’s mind. The category 4 cyclone killed as many as 12,000 people.
“It’s just about impossible to attribute a specific extreme event to climate change,” said Kevin Walsh, an associate professor of earth sciences at the University of Melbourne, in an interview with Reuters. But “a fair amount of work has been done that suggests the likelihood of extreme tropical cyclones like Haiyan is likely to increase around the world.”
As the Earth’s temperatures continue to rise, especially in the oceans, scientists say conditions “load the dice” for more extreme weather. Many even predict that natural disasters will increase in intensity. That might be bad news for countries like the Philippines, which the World Bank reports is the third most vulnerable country for severe climate change events.