Super Typhoon Haiyan: Why Monster Storm Is So Unusual

The massive typhoon striking the Philippines is both big and late in the season.

A fairly normal typhoon season in the western Pacific has spawned a real monster—supertyphoon Haiyan—which made landfall in the Philippines at around 5 a.m. local time.

The storm, described by some as "tropical cyclone perfection" and "off the charts," packed sustained winds of 195 miles (315 kilometers per hour), with gusts as strong as 235 miles (380 kilometers per hour). Experts predict the typhoon—also known as Yolanda in the Philippines—could end up being the strongest storm to ever make landfall since modern record-keeping began, according to The Washington Post.

"It's knocking our socks off," said Jim Kossin, an atmospheric scientist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climatic Data Center. (Related: "What's a Typhoon, Anyway?")

But what happens to create such a megastorm?

There are several environmental factors that play into how strong a storm can get, Kossin explained. The storms thrive on warm water that goes deep into the ocean and consistent wind speeds in the atmosphere, he said.

"When all those things align in a certain way, then you're going to get something like [Haiyan]," Kossin added.

More Storms on the Horizon

Haiyan is a strange storm in both its strength and because it comes very late in the typhoon season, which officially ended November 1, said Colin Price, head of the geophysical, atmospheric, and planetary sciences department at Tel Aviv University in Israel.

Although the overall number of hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons—all the same weather phenomenon—hasn't increased over the past decades, the proportion of more intense storms has, Price explained. (See "Typhoon, Hurricane, Cyclone: What's the Difference?")

"All typhoons feed off the warm ocean waters," he said. The moisture-laden air above these regions is the fuel that fires the engines in these storms.

"We've seen in the past decades the oceans are warming up, likely due to climate change," said Price. "So warmer oceans will give us more energy for these storms, likely resulting in more intense storms."

Haiyan dipped down near the Equator, where it likely picked up some more steam, before heading to the Philippines, he said.

It's similar to what happened when Hurricane Katrina picked up steam as it passed over the warm pool of water in the Gulf of Mexico in August 2005.

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