The fact that on Tuesday, September 24, a cyclonic storm - named Hamoon by the Iranian Met Office who first spotted it - made landfall on the southern coast of Chattogram and Cox's Bazar wasn't surprising in itself. This is after all a region that has witnessed some of history's most infamous and deadliest storm systems - none more so than the Great Bhola Cyclone of November 1970, perhaps the first and only cyclone that could be said to have changed the destiny of a nation, or even two.
What was surprising however, was that residents of Bangladesh's southern coast, unlike during almost every other major cyclone to have made landfall in any of the country's coastal districts in the last 15-20 years, had so little warning of it. Following yet another devastating cyclone that ravaged Bhola in 1991, the country had something of a 'Never again' moment. Over successive governments in the subsequent years, it finally endeavoured to defend itself against these deadly storms, which were likely not going away. On average, you can expect at least one cyclone to make landfall in Bangladesh every year, in one of two narrow windows either side of the monsoon. It relied on a proliferation of cyclone shelters, an early warning system, and an army of volunteers, all buttressed by an effective communication network making use of local radio stations and mobile phones. Nowadays, those expected to fall in the expected path of a storm usually know about it days in advance. If you so wish, you can track a storm all the way from where the first depression is formed, deep in the ocean, all the way to landfall. This time, that was not the case.
The alarm around Hamoon was raised barely a day before it made landfall. The evacuation effort was mobilised so late, people were still on the way to designated shelters as Hamoon made landfall. And so even though it crossed the Bangladesh coastline as a Category 1 storm (the weakest of 5 categories), six people ended up getting killed. Was this simply a case of the authorities falling asleep at the wheel? Or were there other factors at play?
Less than 24 hours later, almost half a world away, another storm system's (what we call cyclones in this part of the world are known as hurricanes when they originate in the Atlantic Ocean) behaviour, assessed by scientists, offers some clues. Hurricane Otis made landfall on Mexico's Pacific coast, battering the quaint resort town of Acapulco with winds of 165 miles per hour. Just 24 hours earlier, Acapulco was told to expect a tropical storm just below hurricane strength.
As Brian McNoldy, hurricane researcher at the University of Miami, put it: "It's one thing to have a Category 5 hurricane make landfall somewhere when you're expecting it. But to have it happen when you're not expecting anything to happen is truly a nightmare."
McNoldy and his colleagues however have been spotting a pattern that offers a possible answer. It of course comes back to climate change again. They have documented a trend of hurricanes rapidly intensifying more often in recent decades because of warmer water connected to global warming. Globally, the world's oceans have been setting monthly surface heat records since April. Each month is warmer than its corresponding month the previous year. The spiral of ever-warmer weather usually will translate to warmer waters in the world's oceans. Is it too late for us to step back from the brink?
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