Did climate change cause cyclone Nargis?

Published: Saturday 31 May 2008

DownToEarthMore than 100,000 people, according to unofficial estimate, are feared dead after cyclone Nargis tore through Myanmar late May 2 night. Another 43,000 people were missing four days after the disaster. For over 10 hours, wind travelling upto 241 km per hour swept through the Irrawaddy delta regionknown as Myanmars rice bowland dumped 51 cm of rain. The cyclone ravaged the capital, Yangon, and other cities such as Bogalay, Labutta and Pyapon.

Myanmars Ministry for Relief and Resettlement said the cyclone was one of the countrys worst natural disasters and the second largest in the region after the tsunami of 2004. Indias meteorological agency, which monitors cyclones in the Indian Ocean, says it warned the Myanmar authorities 48 hours before the storm struck. Citizens, however, complain they were not alerted about the severity of the cyclone.

The actual scale of disaster is gradually unfolding after Myanmars military government cautiously allowed international aid agencies to begin relief operations in the isolated country. While some, including the un, are criticizing the military junta for its lack of preparation for the disaster, asean Chief Surin Pitsuwan has blamed the massive death toll on the destruction of mangrove forests that served as a buffer from sea waves and storms.

Meanwhile, intensification of cyclone Nargis at the last momentchanging gear from Category-one to Category-four cyclone just before it made the landfallhas spurred a debate among climate scientists: Are tropical cyclones occurring more often, producing more powerful storms, because of global warming?

Tropical storms typically begin to brew in the Northern Hemisphere around this time of the year as ocean waters warm up. But their intensity has roughly doubled since the 1950s, news agency afp quotes Kerry Emanuel, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the us, as saying. The massive increase has especially occurred over the last three decades, mirroring a rise in global warmingThe trend stepped up from the mid-1990s, when global mean temperatures began to scale ever-higher annual peaks, says Emanuel. Though many climate scientists argue that such judgments are premature, cyclone Nargis is the third high intensity storm in the space of a year in the northern Indian Ocean.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (ipcc) too does not paint a rosy picture of the future. The 2007 ipcc report states: There has been a much larger increase in the intensity of cyclones since 1970 in some regions. It is likely that future tropical cyclones will become more intense, packing heavy winds and rain.

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