Living with Typhoons
By “Awake!” correspondent in the Philippines
CONVENED in Quezon City, Philippine Republic, during December 1969, a group of international experts had some vital business to which to attend. Peoples of the whole Pacific area were keenly interested. The subject of discussion was not political. No, for this was the second annual meeting of the Typhoon Committee of the World Meteorological Organization and United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East.
As a subject of discussion, typhoons are of more than just curious interest to the populations of the Western Pacific. In fact, many of those people have experienced the fury of a typhoon. They have seen roofs of homes carried away. They have seen entire homes smashed as though made of paper and matchsticks. They have known the terror of muddy water swirling around their homes—water that fell in sheets during the course of the storm. They have cowered and waited helplessly as one-hundred-mile-per-hour winds lashed at the whole countryside.
So it is not surprising that the week-long deliberations of this commission were attended by delegates from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines. Also represented by observers were such other interested countries as Australia, France, the Netherlands, Russia, Britain and the United States. All were anxious to see what might be done to restrain this capricious giant, the typhoon, when it goes on the rampage.
Some Typhoon Facts
What is a typhoon? The word describes a weather phenomenon in which the wind blows around a low pressure area. In the same family with typhoons are whirlwinds, tornadoes and waterspouts. But the typhoon is the largest of them all in breadth, in height and in wind velocity. Indeed, when the wind speed is in excess of seventy-five miles per hour, that is a typhoon. Similar storms are called “hurricanes” in the Caribbean area and the eastern part of the United States.
When one considers the tremendous energy that is released by a typhoon, one cannot help wondering where it all comes from. The answer is that it comes from water vapor. But how? Just think of it in this way: Much heat is required completely to evaporate a kettle of water on a stove. All that heat is then locked, so to speak, in the water vapor. The energy absorbed during the process of evaporation could now be released if we caused the same amount of water vapor to condense back into the liquid state.
By this same process, in an average-size typhoon, there is the equivalent of 40,000 hydrogen bombs in energy. This helps us to see that for a typhoon to maintain its intensity there must be a continuous water supply. And it explains why, when passing over land, the typhoon tends to speed up and lose strength, but when it is over water it will slow down and increase in intensity.
What are the conditions that spawn typhoons? Up to this time scientists have been unable to come up with the complete answer. Some of the contributing factors, however, are known. Here are three of them: (1) A warm ocean surface with a sea temperature of at least 26° Celsius (79° F.); (2) a thick layer of moist air that extends to a height of two miles or more; and (3) sufficient latitude, since tropical storms cannot form at the equator, and seldom form within five degrees of the equator. The main area for formation of typhoons that affect Southeast Asia is the region south of Guam but north of the equator in the Pacific Ocean. A second area is the China Sea.
Need for Improved Warning Systems
One of the main considerations at this meeting of the Typhoon Committee was how to improve warning systems so that people would have ample time to protect themselves and their property. When you consider the vast expanse of ocean that constitutes the main spawning region of typhoons, it is easy to understand how great is the difficulty of establishing weather stations. As of now, forecasters are relying on radar reports, satellite pictures, and charts of previous weather patterns in order to locate the buildup of storms.
As these buildups are located, aircraft are sent out to check on their progress and to plot their positions. Barometric pressures are recorded, as well as wind speed and other factors that may help in determining the life, speed, course and distance of the storm. On the basis of these reports maps are made and warnings prepared for distribution to the public through the news media.
It can be seen that the greater the number of weather stations spread throughout the spawning area or adjoining it, the more accurate forecasts will be. During the past year additional facilities have been put into operation through the cooperation of the Typhoon Commission in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Korea. Efforts are being made to establish better communications between the various countries involved, so that better warnings might be given.
Weather ships, too, are being considered. Both Russia and the United States have shown interest in establishing an ocean weather ship in the Pacific near Guam. Its purpose would be to locate potential storms and record weather facts in the area. Being right on the spot, such a floating weather installation could observe the earliest indications of a dangerous storm.
Efforts to Lessen Damage
Various experiments have been tried in an effort to lessen the damage from typhoons. Since the typhoon’s source of energy is its water vapor, then condensing the vapor back to water should release the energy and cause the typhoon to dissipate its strength before it can reach land. This is why so much attention is being given to seeding the clouds with chemicals with the, idea of forcing them to release the water while still out at sea. Though not much has been accomplished as yet, it is hoped that this method may yet be developed to the point of success.
A great deal of the damage from typhoons comes from the formidable flooding that results from its heavy rains on land. Dams and levees are being planned and built with a view to control of excess water. Projects are currently under way in the Tansui River basin in Taiwan, and in the low-lying Pampanga River area of the Philippines.
Of course, it is now recognized that a major cause of the flooding has been man’s misuse of the land. Indiscriminate logging has denuded the country of a natural preventive of flooding. The heavy rainfall from typhoons is truly beneficial if the land is able to absorb it. However, when forests are removed and the land is cultivated without regard to soil conservation, much of the rain just runs off the surface, often producing serious erosion. Laws are being sought to control logging operations, and farmers are being encouraged to plant cover crops and practice contour farming.
What You Can Do
Even though considerable advance warning is even now given of approaching typhoons, many tend to ignore or treat lightly the seriousness of the warning. Perhaps they have survived previous storms and feel that there is not the need to worry. Or it may be that the passage of time since that last typhoon has blunted the sharpness of their sense of great danger. Theirs is a very unwise course. The best course is to prepare for the worst, heed the storm warnings of the weather bureau, and become familiar with the meanings of the public storm signals in whatever form they are given. Be conversant with practical precautionary measures, and do not fail to follow them through as the typhoon approaches.
It helps to be able to recognize the signs that mark the typhoon’s approach—characteristics of the wind and the waves, their behavior in general. Generally typhoons move in a northwesterly direction in Southeast Asia.
Refuse to be unduly alarmed by rumors. However, pay close attention to weather bulletins as provided by radio, television or newspaper. If warned to evacuate a dangerous area, do so without delay. If you feel justified in staying in your home, be sure to take account of all your needs. Remember, power may be cut off temporarily. Water supply may be halted or contaminated. Thus you will want to have foods that require little or no cooking, and you will definitely need to have a store of good drinkable water. Other emergency equipment should be checked to make sure you know where it is and that it is in usable order.
Usually well-built homes are thought to be quite secure. However, it is wise not to be too confident. In winds of up to two hundred miles per hour they may not be safe, especially if located near the coast or in an unsheltered place. Some questions to consider in advance are: Are there heavy branches or trees that might fall on the home? Is the roof secure? To what extent is flooding going to present a danger?
In much of Southeast Asia the homes are not solidly built. Bamboo, leaves and wood products are the building materials. When a typhoon warning is posted, what can be done? To give the structure strength, poles are put up at angles against the house and dug into the ground. Guy wires are also tied from the house to the ground. Since the wind reverses itself during the passing of a typhoon, poles and wires are used on all sides of the dwelling. Thus, no matter which way the building is subject to stress, there is something to offset it.
The effect of a typhoon on one’s means of livelihood also needs to be taken into account. In many areas of Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands coconut trees are the principal source of income. Though not usually uprooted, these trees sustain considerable damage from the typhoon, largely through damage to the leaves. It seems that the leaves draw up the moisture to feed the fruit and they contain the chlorophyll so essential for converting sunlight into plant food. Even if the tree continues to bear fruit following the big storm, it is more than likely that the coconuts will be empty, and thus of no commercial value.
It does not seem that anything can be done to prevent typhoons, but some suggestions on how to offset some of the economic loss might be considered. Farmers are encouraged, for example, to plant legume crops such as peanuts, or mangoes and bananas, in among the coconut trees. In many instances where this suggestion has been followed farmers have not only gained a second source of income, but the yield of the coconut trees has increased by as much as 69 percent. And if the coconut trees do happen to suffer from storm damage, these secondary crops grow much faster so that the farmer is not left without any income or food source.
Rice is another major crop in this region. However, because of repeated typhoons some areas are useless when it comes to producing successful rice crops. One of these is Batanes province in the far north of the Philippine Islands. Instead, root crops are planted, crops not so severely affected as rice, crops of camote or sweet potato perhaps. This could be an extra crop in many other areas where typhoon losses are usually high.
In view of what has been said here about the perils of the typhoon, it would not be surprising if people got the impression that typhoons have no redeeming features. Yet that would not be the truth of the matter. Typhoons produce a great deal of good too. For example, through their agency millions of gallons of salt water are desalinated and distributed widely over the parched land. For man to desalinate such vast quantities would take much expensive installation and many years.
Is it possible that there are other benefits bestowed on man and his home by the powerful winds of the typhoon? Here, too, man just does not have all the answers. In his ignorance man suffers the harmful effects of the typhoon and that is what looms large in his mind. His study of all its benefits to man, to the air we breathe and to the soil from which our sustenance comes is still in the elementary stage.
We can be sure that in the coming new system of things our Creator, Jehovah God, will not permit the ruin and devastation and loss of human life now connected with typhoons. He will bring to pass in a literal way his own generous promise of good to obedient creatures of earth, recorded at Ezekiel 34:27: “The tree of the field must give its fruitage, and the land itself will give its yield, and they will actually prove to be on their soil in security.” Instead of living precariously with typhoons, there will be confidence in the preventive and protective power of the Maker of the wind, the ocean and all things.