Why Tropical Storm Vongfong May Just Be The Beginning For Japan

CREDIT: AP Photo / NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team

A satellite image of Super Typhoon Vongfong on Thursday, October 9.

Typhoon Vongfong arrived at Japan’s Okinawa Island over the weekend. And while the storm itself weakened during its journey across the western Pacific Ocean, stronger storms may very well be in Japan’s future.

On Wednesday, October 8, Vongfong actually hit Category 5 status, ranking it as both a super typhoon and the strongest typhoon of 2014. “Typhoon” or “hurricane” is simply the name given in different parts of the world to tropical cyclones that achieve a certain level of strength. At the low end is a tropical depression, followed by a tropical storm, and then typhoon or hurricane. Once past the latter threshold, the storms are measured on a scale of categories, with Category 1 the weakest and Category 5 the strongest.

Fortunately for Japan and Okinawa, Vongfong dropped to a Category 1 on Saturday and then to a tropical storm. Still, at least 31 people were injured by the storm, according to the Japanese News Network NHK, while 53,000 households in Okinawa and over 50,000 in Kagoshima Prefecture were hit by blackouts and officials advised evacuating of 90,000 homes and 2,700 homes in the two areas, respectively.

Japan may not be so lucky in the future, however. A paper put out back in July by researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research found that, if humanity’s carbon emissions continue on a business-as-usual path, the resulting uptick in cyclone strength from climate change could cost the world economy $9.7 trillion by 2090. “We didn’t believe what we saw at first,” admitted Amir Jina, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago and one of the study’s authors.

The modeling showed Japan was the country hardest hit by a considerable margin, facing around $4.4 trillion in total losses.

The top 10 countries suffering economic losses from increased storm strength by 2090.

The top 10 countries suffering economic losses from increased storm strength by 2090.

CREDIT: / Hsiang and Jina, 2014

China came in second with around $1.4 trillion in losses by 2090. China and other parts of South Asia are home to huge concentrations of some of the world’ poorest populations, which also face some of the greatest risk from extreme weather if global warming continues.

The United States ranked fifth in economic losses from storms at $855 billion lost.

The researchers developed their projections by looking at the economic damage done by 6,700 cyclones in the past. As reported, what they found was that the strongest storms can blow something like a permanent hole in a country’s economy. Growth continues but at a lower track than before. That “lost growth” is the economic damage from the storms. In the U.S., for instance, Jina and his co-authors found $150 billion in growth had been lost to storms from 1970 to 2008.

The effect climate change will have on storm activity across the world is difficult to tease out. But there’s a general consensus in the literature that — if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated — we’re likely to see a decrease in the total number of storms that reach tropical cyclone strength, but also an increase in their strength. That in turn shakes out to an increase in the absolute number of unusually intense storms.

On Sunday, India prepared for its own Cyclone, Hudhud. With winds at 120 miles per hour, the storm is expected to cause extensive devastation along the coast, and 400,000 people have already been evacuated. A similar evacuation for Cyclone Phailin last year is credited with keeping the fatalities to a mere 53 people, compared to the 10,000 who died from another storm 15 years ago, before the current evacuation process was standardized.

But India may be spared in the future: climate change’s effects on storms are not evenly distributed, and thanks to a decrease in future storm frequency in the Indian Ocean, India could actually see about $264 billion more in growth by 2090 than it would enjoy absent climate change.

Globally, however, the losses from stronger storms far outweighed the gains, delivering the $9.7 trillion net loss.