The Most Powerful Storm on Earth Is Bearing Down on Japan

The Most Powerful Storm on Earth Is Bearing Down on Japan

I think it’s time to retire Maria as a name for any storm. The name has been wiped from the hurricane list in the Atlantic after Hurricane Maria completely upended life in the Caribbean. But it’s still on the rolls in the Pacific, where Typhoon Maria is about to make life miserable.

The storm has ping-ponged between being the equivalent of a Category 4 and Category 5 storm since late last week. Maria could clip Japan’s Ryukyu Islands and Taiwan before slamming into China’s central coast on Wednesday, dumping heavy rains along the way. That could be a huge issue in Japan, which is already reeling from historic flooding that’s left at least 109 dead and 2 million ready evacuate.

As of Monday, Maria was spinning as a strong Category 4 storm about 300 miles from Okinawa with sustained winds of nearly 143 mph, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center. Gusts are even more potent, reaching an estimated 174 mph. The current buzzsaw of a storm is a far cry from where it was on Thursday, when it was just a tropical storm with winds around 70 mph.

From Thursday to Friday, the storm exploded. Warm waters and calm upper levels winds allow the storm to blow up to a Category 5 monster with 160 mph winds in 24 hours. In meteorological parlance, the storm underwent rapid intensification, which weather geeks define as a storm’s winds increasing 35 mph in a 24-hour period. Maria more than met the criteria.

The storm weakened a bit over the course of Friday and into Saturday before picking steam again on Sunday and reaching Category 5 status for the second time in its lifespan. From here on out, the storm is likely to hold steady and then slowly decay as it approaches land and upper level winds become more inhospitable to the storm’s structure and rotation.

But even as it weakens, Maria will remain dangerous. By tomorrow evening, it’s forecast to reach southern end of the Ryukyu Islands, a small archipelago on the southern edge of Japan. At that time Maria is forecast to have 130 mph winds, which are the equivalent of a strong Category 3 hurricane. Up to eight inches of rain could fall as well.

Japan is already struggling to respond to flooding throughout the central and western part of Honshu, the country’s main island. Any damage in far flung parts of of the Ryukyu Islands will only stretch resources further.

The storm is forecast to remain a Category 3 as it passes near the northern edge of Taiwan on Wednesday as well. Even if Maria doesn’t make landfall there, it’s likely to drop up to 12 inches of rain over the hilly terrain. That same terrain will also weaken the storm further, and it’s forecast to be a Category 1-equivalent storm at landfall in China.

A study published in 2016 showed that typhoons hitting Asia over the past 37 years—a period of reliable satellite records—have become up to 15 percent more intense and the “proportion of storms of categories 4 and 5 having doubled or even tripled.” That change is largely driven by rapid intensification becoming more common owing to rising ocean temperatures. The research indicates that climate change will only make this trend more common for storms in the vicinity of China, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea.

Climate change could also be playing a role in the increase in rapid intensification for hurricanes in the Atlantic basin according to other research, making coastal living an increasingly risky bet.