Typhoons are big and bad to the core: They can snap the tallest trees like matchsticks and toss a steel-hulled ship as if it were a small toy boat.

Although these wicked weather systems can occur at any time, the unofficial “typhoon season” has arrived in mainland Japan, Okinawa, South Korea and Guam.

“The Western Pacific is the most active basin for typhoons in the world,” said Lt. Cmdr. Laura Salvador, Meteorology and Oceanography staff officer at Guam’s Naval Forces Marianas. “On average, 31 tropical storms — of which about 20 become typhoons — develop.”

Salvador said six tropical cyclones already have roared up the Pacific this year, “two of which have developed into super typhoons with winds in excess of 150 mph. So let’s just say the year has not been quiet.”

The storms are categorized into three types of systems, said Petty Officer 1st Class Aaron Kawczk, Sasebo Naval Base forecaster:

• Tropical storms — winds of 39-73 mph.

• Typhoons — winds of 74-149 mph.

• Super typhoons — winds greater than 149 mph.

Kawczk said tropical cyclones form when a large mass of air becomes significantly warmer than usual, triggering a great spiral-shaped, counterclockwise movement of air over an area of hundreds of square miles.

Potential always there

Typhoons can occur during any month but are most frequent during late summer.

Hurricanes and typhoons are practically the same storms, except hurricanes develop in the Atlantic and typhoons in the Pacific, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Many typhoons come together near Guam because it is located “where the tropical ocean and atmosphere are prime conditions for these systems to form,” Salvador said.

Stressing that “typhoon season” is no more than a relative term, she said Guam is susceptible to these systems all year. Throughout history, Guam has been hit by a tropical cyclone in each month of the year.

Super Typhoon Pongsona in December 2002 battered Guam with 155-mph winds and rainfall of more than 20 inches, downing trees and power lines and destroying thousands of homes.

“Unlike other locations, it’s not a question of ‘if’ a tropical cyclone will hit Guam but ‘when,’” Salvador said.

In southern Japan, the period of highest threat is just around the bend: “from early June until early September,” Kawczk said.

An average year will log 32 tropical storms, 18 typhoons and five super typhoons, Kawczk said, with August being the peak of activity.

Okinawa receives more than a fair share of severe weather from typhoons, which usually continue moving north toward Nagasaki, Sasebo or other Kyushu cities.

One storm is remembered as especially disastrous, said longtime Sasebo resident, base museum curator and local historian Phil Eakins: Super Typhoon Mireille in 1991 caused crop damage on Guam, slammed Okinawa, Kyushu, Honshu and still was landing powerful punches by the time it reached Misawa Air Base, Japan, far to the north.

“Mireille was so bad that it was decided to never use the name again for a typhoon,” Eakins said. “There were 52 deaths and 777 injuries. Six million homes were without power for days.”

During the storm, Misawa Air Base recorded the most destructive winds since the United States started keeping records for the base in 1946.

For more than five hours the winds were 58 miles per hour or greater and included a peak gust to 94 miles per hour. Resulting damage was estimated at up to $1.5 million.

Heading off disaster

The good news about typhoons, if it could be called that, is that meteorologists today almost always can predict days in advance when, and where, the storms will hit land — and the U.S. military has devised a finely calibrated system to ensure bases, servicemembers and their families are prepared.

Maj. David Andrus, operations director for the 20th Operational Weather Squadron at Yokota Air Base, Japan, said the “Tropical Cyclone Condition of Readiness” is an effective tool that quickly gets everyone on the same page at the same time. Each base agency has a checklist of actions to take for each TCCOR phase, from checking the public address system and notifying key personnel to closing hangars and sending people home.

The TCCOR system has been used for at least 10 years in the Pacific region, Andrus said.

When a tropical storm kicks up in the Pacific, the Joint Typhoon Warning Center tracks it and issues the official forecast. The 20th Operational Weather Squadron collaborates with the JTWC on the storm’s potential impact, Andrus said, and then works with the Air Force and Army combat weather teams throughout Japan, Okinawa and South Korea, localizing possible storm effects and discussing TCCOR recommendations.

Meteorologists may not always be able to predict accurately where the storm’s center will hit but usually can forecast where its impact will be felt because tropical systems tend to be very large, said Capt. Steve Barlow, 35th Operations Support Squadron commander at Misawa Air Base and a former JTWC typhoon duty officer.

“If they’re 60 miles off on the center,” he said, “the storm could be 300 miles in diameter and everyone within 150 miles is going to get pounded with spiral bands, heavy rain and maybe tornadoes.”

New methods

“Accuracy-wise, they’re doing a lot of great things,” Barlow said of the JTWC.

Better satellite technology is enabling meteorologists to build a picture of a storm that may be churning miles out to sea.

Satellites measure sea surface temperature, which is key to tropical storm development, Barlow said. They also measure wave spray.

“You can infer what the wind speeds are based on what the waves are doing,” Andrus said.

Meteorologists use microwave frequencies bounced from satellites to look inside clouds to study a storm system’s structure.

“That’s critical over here because we don’t have aircraft to fly into the storm like they do in the Atlantic,” Barlow said, adding that the flights were cut years ago to save money.

“Fifty years ago, you could have been completely blind-sided by a tropical storm and that will not happen today,” he said. “You might get some false alarms, given there’s a 72-hour heads up” with TCCOR. But “we would rather have people know that it might happen and start thinking about it rather than not knowing it’s there until it blows their house away.”

A storm to remember

Typhoons that swept over Japan in the past 50 years have claimed thousands of lives, according to information compiled by Japan’s Fire and Disaster Management Agency — including the typhoon that claimed 5,098 lives in central Japan on Sept. 26, 1959.

The 112-mph winds slammed into the coastal Ise Bay, and unprecedented high tidal waves broke dikes, flooding cities and towns around the bay.

Kaneo Ogawa, 71, clearly remembers the night when the Ise Bay Typhoon hit Nagoya city. “The weather in the morning was very clear and it was hard to believe that a typhoon was coming,” recalled the local Nagoya historian. “Toward the evening, however, everything had changed. A torrential rain started to pour down.

“The rain soon flooded the city’s low areas,” he said. He said he was fortunate his home sat on a hillside.

Ogawa, who was 26 then, ventured out to see what had happened downtown. “In those days, there were many lumber yards in the city,” he said. “Log after log, big ones as long as 10 meters (about 33 feet) long, all standing upright, pressed by the force of rain and winds.”

The logs seemed to march upright through the flood.

“As they swept the already flooded city, houses and buildings were knocked down by the logs, one after another,” he said.

“In the dark, I heard voices calling desperately for help. But I couldn’t do anything for them.”

To this day, he still feels guilty he could not come to the victims’ aid. Forty years later, Ogawa devotes himself to telling stories about the super storm.

“It is good that people today are mindful and prepare for disaster that tropical cyclone causes,” he said. “But one very important thing to remember is that natural disasters become worse when people lose their memory of the last one.”

— Chiyomi Sumida

Typhoon names

In 2000, a new naming system was implemented for the Western North Pacific. With the international naming system, each member of the Typhoon Committee submitted 10 names for a list.

Names come from plants, animals or other objects, and no longer alternate between male and female names as hurricanes in the Atlantic and Eastern Pacific do. Upcoming typhoons will be named as follows, with the translation and country of origin for the name in parentheses:

• Sudal (an otter, South Korea).

• Nida (woman’s name, Thailand).

• Omais (Palauan word for “wandering around,” United States).

• Conson (picturesque place in Haihung province, Vietnam).

• Chanthu (a kind of flower, Cambodia).

• Dianmu (goddess in charge of thunder and lightning, China).

• Mindulle (dandelion, North Korea).

• Tingting (pet name for young girls, Hong Kong).

• Kompasu (compass — device for scribing circles, Japan).

• Namtheun (river, Laos).

— From staff reports

author picture
Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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