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Tropical cyclones are large, cyclonic (spinning) storms mainly formed in warm conditions as they require high sea surface temperatures. This requirement restricts their formation to several regions, such as the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean Islands and the East Coast of the U.S., Central America, and the Northwest Pacific region — particularly the South China Sea, the Philippines, Japan, and Korea.
The climate crisis has, in recent years, been increasing the intensity and frequency of tropical cyclones, breaking several historical records. Climate change has increased sea surface temperatures, fueling more energy for cyclones to grow. In February and March 2023, Cyclone Freddy became the longest-lasting tropical cyclone in recorded history in a track that spanned the entire South Indian Ocean and devastated Madagascar and Mozambique. In November 2020, Super Typhoon Goni, one of the strongest typhoons in history at landfall, led to widespread destruction in the Philippines. The 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season was one of the most destructive on record, with its record number of documented storms causing $38 billion in economic damages alone.
Environmental Devastation Caused by Tropical Cyclones
With their increased intensity and frequency comes more destruction. Tropical cyclones regularly cause massive floods and widespread destruction — both economic and human costs — and the climate crisis will only worsen the carnage these cyclones bring. Flooding is often the most destructive part of a given cyclone. Individual cyclones can cause hundreds of thousands of deaths, especially in vulnerable areas with lacklustre preparation and leadership in hazard management. In 2008, Cyclone Nargis killed 140,000 people in Myanmar primarily due to junta mismanagement. Further back in 1970, a cyclone in Bangladesh — then part of Pakistan — caused up to 600,000 deaths due to a lack of response from the Pakistani government. Their lack of response later sparked political turmoil in Bangladesh, eventually separating the nation from Pakistan.
Tropical cyclones can also cause irreversible damage to local ecosystems. Storm surge creates strong waves that can severely erode beaches, causing impacts on local environments. It can also cause the erasure of local landmarks, as demonstrated by Hurricane Fiona’s effects on PEI after it swept across Atlantic Canada in September 2022. In Louisiana, meanwhile, storm surge – describing the phenomenon where the ocean creeps inland, submerging land under the sea temporarily – has accelerated shoreline erosion as the soil has eroded permanently through these floods.
Moreover, many underreported issues stem from tropical cyclones that can be just as destructive as the more reported-upon effects, like strong wind and rain. Often, these impacts will also disproportionately affect lower-income and developing nations.
The Human and Economic Costs of Tropical Cyclones
Tropical cyclones can bring floods caused by intense rain and storm surges, whereby ocean water is pulled onto shore by strong winds from these cyclones. Unfortunately, these floods can bring infectious diseases to human populations. Cyclone Freddy led to the “worst-ever” cholera outbreak in Malawi and caused a spike in many other diseases. The cyclone also destroyed hundreds of healthcare facilities in the impacted regions, further limiting the ability of local authorities to deal with these outbreaks. In another case, the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu saw a steep rise in cases of waterborne diseases after two cyclones devastated the country just a month apart between them.
Tropical cyclones can also bring enormous economic destruction and displacement. These impacts are particularly pronounced in developing countries, which are often the most hard-hit by tropical cyclones. Typhoon Goni in 2020, for example, destroyed many homes in the Philippines as it swept across the country. Farmland and crops are also commonly flooded in the aftermath of tropical cyclones, destroying the livelihoods of local farmers and damaging local communities’ food security.
Likewise, tropical cyclones can lead to the destruction of infrastructure. Cyclone Freddy led to massive, prolonged blackouts in Malawi. In 2001, Typhoon Nari heavily damaged the Taipei metro system, with three-story high flood waters in areas around the capital flooding many metro stations — the damage took months to repair. The 2022 Atlantic hurricane season was one of the most costly in recorded history, with one hurricane alone leading to over US$110 billion in damages. Three years prior, Hurricane Dorian had damaged over 90% of buildings in certain areas in the Bahamas.
What We Can Learn
Much more still needs to be done about the climate crisis to prevent extreme weather crises from increasing in intensity and frequency. Tropical cyclones and other extreme weather phenomena can have devastating, irreparable, and often underreported impacts on local communities, ecosystems, and economies. Unfortunately, these damages are often most pronounced in developing nations lacking infrastructure and well-designed responsive measures.
The aftermath of tropical cyclones can last for years – destroyed infrastructure takes money to rebuild, and in the meantime, economic productivity is reduced due to the lack of infrastructure. This loss of economic productivity leads to lost income for many workers in the affected area, disproportionately affecting poorer communities and people of colour. Increased government spending is also needed to rebuild the affected region, which may divert funding away from other programs that many people rely on. All these factors combined mean that a tropical cyclone’s impact on local residents and communities can linger for years long after the storm has passed.
Despite significant research into this field, weakening tropical cyclones through artificial methods is currently infeasible. In the meantime, then, mitigation is the only possible option in preventing the damages caused by tropical cyclones. Local governments should make, review, and update response plans to minimize cyclone impacts on affected communities. These strategies may include training response teams, improving drainage systems, and constructing stronger buildings – especially buildings that can offer shelter and medical treatment – that can withstand the high winds and flooding from tropical cyclones.
Edited by Alexandra Hu