8 Oct 2014

Is this the most powerful storm on the planet so far this year?

Whilst the satellite images from space may be a thing of beauty, we could well be staring down at the most powerful storm on our planet so far this year.

Super Typhoon Vongfong is currently drifting across the north west Pacific Ocean, fuelled by very warm tropical waters.

Equivalent to a category five hurricane, Vongfong is estimated by the Joint Typhoon Warning Center to have sustained winds of 160-180mph, with gusts as high as 220mph. 


In addition to these extreme winds, it has a very low central pressure of 900mb, just 5mb off the 895mb central pressure of Typhoon Haiyan that devastated the Philippines at the beginning of November 2013.

It is Super Typhoon Vongfong’s startling statistics that probably make it the most powerful storm on the planet this year, surpassing the intensity of Hurricane (later Typhoon) Genevieve at the beginning of August.

Why is it so powerful?

Typhoons draw their energy from warm tropical waters, requiring a sea surface temperature of 26C or above to thrive.

At the moment, Super Typhoon Vongfong is in an area that has sea surface temperatures around 30C – the result of nwpacific_SST_WISC_wpmonths of cumulative heating during northern hemisphere summer.

This means that there is an abundance of energy to allow the storm to strengthen and become very powerful.

Another factor is wind shear – how much the wind speed and direction in the atmosphere changes with height.

In order for storms to remain cohesive and tower high up into the atmosphere, wind shear needs to be low, otherwise the storms gets ripped apart in a tug of war fashion.

Super Typhoon Vongfong is currently in an area of low wind shear, allowing it to maintain its structure very well – hence the storm’s symmetrical appearance and perfectly formed eye at its centre.

Where is it heading?

This is where the problems begin with such a powerful storm. It is very hard for the weather computer models to predict its path beyond 48 hours ahead.

However, most weather computer models take the storm northwards towards the far south west of Japan. The question is which direction it then takes – something that will only become clearer during the next 24-36 hours.


Thankfully, Vongfong will have weakened substantially by the time it reaches Japan, likely to be equivalent to a category one hurricane, with sustained winds of around 75mph. Nevertheless, it will still bring a risk of wind damage, a storm surge and heavy rain.

Japan was hit by Typhoon Phanfone just a few days ago, which gave 6-12 inches of rain in places. With more heavy rainfall expected from Vongfong, there are significant concerns of flooding and landslides.

I’ll be keeping a close eye on this storm in the coming days and posting updates on Twitter – @liamdutton

Satellite image: Naval Research Laboratory

Tweets by @liamdutton