Monitoring super typhoon Haiyan from space: earth observation at work.

As super typhoon Haiyan (a.k.a. Yolanda) — the equivalent of a Category 5  hurricane — approached the Philippines, social media and mainstream news featured quite a number of interesting maps and images of the storm taken from space. I am delighted by the fact that real-time earth observation data has become much more accessible to the public, and that people consider this an important source of information for preparing against disasters and weather forecasting.

One of the first and best images I’ve seen was taken by the geostationary satellites of the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) and the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT), which shows typhoon Haiyan approaching the Philippines. Notice that the image shows the bright lights of cities captured during night time.

Image of super typhoon Haiyan approaching the Philippines (13:00 UTC 07/11/2013) captured by EUMETSAT.
(Image copyright by JMA/EUMETSAT 2013)

Unlike the incredible image from EUMETSAT, a rather terrifying image was taken by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) sensor aboard the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Aqua satellite showing the eye of the storm approaching the Philippines, particularly parts of Samar Island and Eastern Mindanao could be seen at the left of the image.

MODIS satellite image of super typhoon Haiyan approaching the Philippines (16:25 UTC 07/11/2013).
(Image credit: NASA)

Haiyan, it seems, is one of the strongest typhoons the world has ever seen. And it is hitting the Philippines. According to Dr Jeff Masters’ blog at

Super typhoon Haiyan is one of the most intense tropical cyclones in world history, with sustained winds and incredible 190 mph, gusting to 230 mph, said the Joint Typhoon Warning Center in their 15 UTC November 7, 2013 advisory… Haiyan has the most spectacular appearance I’ve ever seen on satellite loops, with a prominent eye surrounded by a huge, impenetrable-looking mass of intense eyewall thunderstorms that reach into the lower stratosphere.

Since it originated from the ocean and it is not likely to weaken before landfall, it should hit the Philippines with Category 5 strength, Dr Masters goes on to say.

Another frightening image was captured by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) instrument onboard NASA’s polar-orbiting Suomi NPP satellite. VIIRS measures cloud and aerosol properties, ocean color, land and sea surface temperatures, among others, and is intended to help climatologists better understand global climate change. It shows the eye of the typhoon as it approaches the Philippines eastern seaboard.

Infrared image captured by the Suomi NPP satellite’s VIIRS instrument (17:25 UTC 07/11/2013).
(Image credit: NOAA Environmental Visualisation Laboratory)

The next two images were captured by JMA’s geostationary Multi-functional Transport Satellite (MTSAT). The first one shows typhoon Haiyan entering the Philippines, and Calicoan Island is seen through the eye of the storm. The image shows water vapor as measured in the infrared spectrum from MTSAT. The second is an animated GIF image of several MTSAT images acquired between approximately 08:00 to 16:00 UTC 08/11/2013, which shows typhoon Haiyan passing though central Philippines.

Image of super typhoon Haiyan captured by JMA's MTSAT. (Image credit: NOAA/JMA)

Image of super typhoon Haiyan captured by JMA’s MTSAT.
(Image credit: JMA/NOAA Environmental Visualisation Laboratory)

Animated MTSAT images of super typhoon Haiyan passing through central Philippines (approximately between 08:00 to 16:00 UTC 08/11/2013). (Image credit: NOAA Satellite and Information Service)

Animated MTSAT images of super typhoon Haiyan passing through central Philippines
(approximately between 08:00 to 16:00 UTC 08/11/2013).
(Image credit: NOAA Satellite and Information Service)

Recent news on super typhoon Haiyan reports that it strikes the Philippines with a ferocity that may be unparalleled in recorded history. According to Scott Sutherland in his news blog, Geekquinox:

Haiyan has become so powerful as it approaches the Philippines that it has actually gone off the scale, surpassing the maximum level of 8.0 to become a magnitude 8.1 storm. Wind speeds in this incredible storm — which is known as Yolanda in the Philippines — have been measured at 305 km/h, and wind gusts have reached up to 370 km/h. By comparison, Hurricane Wilma in 2005, currently ranked as the most powerful tropical cyclone ever recorded, had wind speeds maxing out at 295 km/h, and an Atlantic storm only needs to reach wind speeds higher than 252 km/h to become a category 5 hurricane. Different storm scales are used for different parts of the world, but one that sees more universal use is the Dvorak scale, which ranks from 1.0 to 8.0.

Eric Holthaus from Quartz, Jason Samenow and Brian McNoldy of the Washington Post, and Douglas Main of share the same thoughts that Haiyan is one of the strongest storms ever seen.  Could it also be the most powerful cyclone the world has ever seen? My wife said when she saw satellite images of typhoon Haiyan, “(It is) so beautiful in its symmetry but so terrifying in its wrath.”

I’ll leave you with this final map image from NOAA showing the intensification of super typhoon Haiyan being fueled by low wind shear and deep, warm ocean temperatures. The NOAA/AOML describes the image as the average Tropical Cyclone Heat Potential product from 28 October to 03 November 2013, and shows the total amount of heat energy available for the storm to absorb, not just on the surface, but integrated through the water column. Deeper, warm water are colored purple, though any region colored from pink to purple has sufficient energy to fuel storm intensification. Also according to NOAA/AOML:

Tropical cyclones form when warm, moist air from the surface rises and cools, creating circulation called convection. The more warm moist air available, the greater the potential for convection and intensification of a storm. As cyclones travel over the ocean, they absorb heat not only from the ocean surface, but from deeper in the water column, and any water greater than about 26oC is sufficient to fuel that convective process. By using satellite measurements of sea surface temperature and sea surface height, it is possible to estimate the depth, or thickness, of upper ocean water that is 26oC or warmer, and thus how much energy is available to fuel a cyclone. Areas where warm waters reach deep have a much higher Tropical Cyclone Heat Potential signal compared to regions with only a shallow body of warm water, or no water above 26oC at all.

I think with these ideal environmental conditions, the Philippines (sadly) can expect more of Haiyan’s kind of tropical cyclones (or worse!) in the near future.

Average Tropical Cyclone Heat Potential product for 28 October to 03 November 2013. (Image credit: NOAA/AOML)

Average Tropical Cyclone Heat Potential product for 28 October to 03 November 2013.
(Image credit: NOAA/AOML)

Stay safe everyone.

#Haiyan #YolandaPH

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