Japan Battered as Asian Typhoons Take Unusual Turn
Author: Elaine Lies
The storms, which have recently hit almost once a week, have also wreaked havoc in China, Taiwan and the Korean peninsula.
Despite the unusual weather, experts are wary of linking it to long-term trends such as global warming, noting that Asia as a whole has not seen an increase in storms.
Instead, Japan is simply getting more than its share.
"Most of them, before reaching our country, move north and northeast, affecting Japan, China and Taiwan," said Nathaniel Cruz, chief of the weather branch at the Philippine Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA).
"Normally, if we have storms north of our country, they enhance the monsoon and bring heavy rain. But we have only really had this once."
At least 29 people died in the Philippines in late August after torrential rains set off by two typhoons that passed to the north. One of these, Chaba, came ashore in Japan and killed nine.
Hong Kong has been hit by three tropical cyclones - the generic name for fierce storms - in the period from January to August, down from a climate normal of 3.8.
So far this year, the area known as the Northwest Pacific basin, which stretches from the dateline to the Asian continent and includes the South China Sea, has been hit by 19 typhoons. The record is 24, set in 1971.
Of the 19, seven - about twice the average, and a record high - have struck Japan, killing at least 45 people.
Tropical cyclones typically form in tropical areas near the equator when warm air creates a rising air current, producing large cumulonimbus clouds - a type of dense, volatile cloud often characteristic of thunderstorms or showers.
Once the wind speed at the center rises above 73 mph (118 kph) an hour, the storm is known as a typhoon in the Pacific and a hurricane in the Atlantic. They are referred to as "tropical cyclones," with some variations, in the Indian Ocean.
Most years, guided by high pressure areas, typhoons tend to pass through the Northwest Pacific on a standard route that usually, but not frequently, includes Japan. The Philippines get 17 to 20 in a normal year.
"This year, though, the high pressure areas off the Pacific are weaker than usual, and also don't extend as far as they normally do, causing typhoons to veer up to Japan," said Hisashi Nakamura, a professor of climate dynamics at Tokyo University.
Warmer than usual waters near Japan for much of the summer, which also saw record-breaking heat on land, worsened the situation by allowing the storms, which normally weaken as they get that far north, to maintain their strength.
Experts, however, aren't ready to place the blame for the unusual weather on global warming.
"What we are seeing now is consistent with what we anticipate happening as the climate changes - but it's still far too early to say," said Peter Manins, the Deputy Chief of Atmospheric Research at Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, an Australian research center.
It is also hard to predict what will happen the rest of the year, with much depending on whether another El Nino system develops or not, which some say is possible.
However, with the season still several months from ending, more storms may lie ahead.
And fewer typhoons, ironically, can cause other woes.
"Definitely in some areas of the country we have below normal rainfall," said Cruz at PAGASA. "There are places that are dependent on rainfall coming from the northeast typhoons."