Cyclone Pam devastated the tiny island nation of Vanuatu last week. Tropical storm Nathan is bearing down — again — on the Australian coast. Tropical depression Bavi will likely dump bucketfuls of rain on Manila this weekend. At one point this week, there were four cyclones circling the South Pacific.
There is no question that extreme weather events are on the rise in the South Pacific, and in response international aid groups and governments are changing the way they approach development and relief. It’s a pattern seen particularly clearly in the Philippines.
Five of the ten most deadly typhoons in the Philippines have been recorded since 2004. Worldwide, floods and storms now account for 80 percent of “weather-induced displacements,” and the Philippines is one of the top five most affected countries. In fact, 87 percent of weather-related displacements occur in Asia.
Some research blames more urban, coastal populations for some of the increased risk, according to data gathered by Eastern Kentucky University, but climate change is at work in several ways. Globally, the rate of natural disasters has doubled in the past 20 years, while rising sea levels, saltwater intrusion of freshwater sources, and other environmental destruction pushes residents into denser areas.
Climate change is making even “normal” weather patterns more disaster-prone. El Nino conditions, for example, have been recorded for hundreds of years. During an El Nino — like the one announced this month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association — warmer waters in the Pacific move easterly toward the Americas, and trade winds along the equator lessen or even reverse direction.
But in the Philippines, the chief of the national weather service warned that El Nino conditions could mean stronger storms for the island nation, while also forecasting drier than normal weather.
This two-pronged outcome stems from El Nino’s effect on the location of the pressure front that typically creates tropical storms in the region, according to climate scientists. As the front is pushed east, away from the Philippines, weaker tropical storms form and drop their rain out over the ocean. At the same time, when strong cyclones develop farther off shore, they have more time to gain speed and severity before they hit land.
“El Nino may cause the behavior of tropical cyclones to become erratic, affecting (their) tracks and intensity,” weather service chief Vicente Malano said.
Climate scientists have not reached a consensus on how climate change will affect El Nino weather patterns over the long term, but warmer air can hold more water vapor, which means cyclones can drop more rain. And the Philippines are definitely seeing warmer air.
“We’re already observing that there is an increase in temperature in the Philippines,” Bradfield Lyon, a research scientist with the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, told ThinkProgress.
“A very important weather phenomenon in the Philippines is the typhoon. During El Nino, they typically get fewer, but stronger,” Lyon said. “There’s a shift in the odds towards it being a stronger storm.”
Nearly 18 months ago, Typhoon Yolanda (called Typhoon Haiyan outside of the Philippines), one of the strongest tropical storms ever recorded, hit the southern Philippines. It killed 6,300 people — with more than a thousand others reported missing — and displaced more than four million people according to the Philippine government.
In addition to the human toll, the storm caused nearly two billion dollars worth of damage, the government estimates. The U.S. government alone contributed more than $90 million toward relief and rebuilding efforts, according to the State Department.
Even now, storms like Yolanda are rare, but the increase in damage from extreme weather and the increase in risk are changing how the international aid community functions.
More and more, organizations focus their resources on addressing climate change issues. This means everything from developing resiliency projects, to including climate data in their models, to distributing real-time weather services that can help local communities in high-risk areas.
The International Research Institute for Climate and Society, based at Columbia University, partners directly with aid organizations such as USAID and the Red Cross across the world, including in the Philippines. “In the past [climate and weather] has been viewed as a stable and constant aspect of development,” Lyon said. Now, he says, predicting weather conditions is more important. USAID, for instance, has been interested in climate research that will help at-risk areas better prepare, both for long-term resiliency and to better protect and rebuilt from emergencies.
In 2010, the State Department launched Fast Start, a three-year finance program that added $33 billion to address climate resiliency in developing nations. The program included, for example, $2.8 million from USAID for a water security program in the Philippines.
That same year climate programming became its own item in the USAID budget, although agency officials told ThinkProgress the change was largely symbolic and programming did not significantly change.
While the climate line item does not include all programming that might deal with climate change and disaster risk resiliency, it does show the increased role climate change is playing in aid efforts. From 2013 to 2014, the USAID climate budget for the Philippines and Pacific Islands increased 30 percent, from $15.76 million to $20.5 million.
The increased focus on climate has come as a welcome surprise to organizations on the ground.
“I am actually surprised to see other international organizations putting their interests on these efforts,” Anthony Lucero, a weather specialist at the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA), told ThinkProgress in an email.
PAGASA has been working with USAID and the International Research Institute for Climate and Society on several climate-related projects. One project, Rice Watch and Action Network, builds climate information networks. The program trains community liaisons to use climate and weather data. The climate information centers make sure that farmers are prepared for the coming seasons or emergency alerts, and they document local conditions for data collection. In some locations, lack of data greatly increases risk.
“I have seen hunger for information in the eyes of many people because of our unique climate,” Lucero said. “Communities suffer in weather extremes, sometimes too often.”