The Most Powerful Storm on Earth This Year Is Heading for Japan

Infrared satellite image of Super Typhoon Vongfong as of Oct. 7, 2014.IMAGE: NOAA


UPDATE, Oct. 8, 12:15 p.m. ET:
Super Typhoon Vongfong is maintaining its extraordinary Category 5 intensity on Wednesday as it moves westward over the open waters of the West Pacific. You can read more details here.

UPDATE, Oct. 7, 10:45 p.m. ET:
Super Typhoon Vongfong is maintaining its extraordinary intensity, with 180 mile per hour estimated sustained winds and higher gusts. It is giving rise to waves of at least 50 feet in height, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JTWC).

Forecasters say Vongfong is likely to remain a Category 5 storm through much of the day on Wednesday, perhaps even intensifying further, unless internal processes weaken it unexpectedly. As it has for the past two days, the storm track forecast remains focused on an eventual landfall in Japan early next week, but the JTWC says it has "low confidence" in the exact track this far in advance.

UPDATE, Oct. 7, 3:40 p.m. ET:
Super Typhoon Vongfong has intensified further, with maximum sustained winds of about 180 miles per hour and gusts higher than 200 miles per hour. This puts it among the strongest storms on record, based on a satellite estimate.

Super Typhoon Vongfong is now equivalent to a high-end Category 5 storm, and it is forecast to intensify further during the next six hours, until it has winds of about 195 miles per hour, according to the JTWC. By some measures it is equivalent to, if not slightly stronger than, Super Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated the Philippines in 2013. Its perfectly symmetrical satellite appearance is the sort that weather geeks the world over use as their screensavers.

Super Typhoon Vongfong has reached meteorological perfection, and hence peak destructiveness, as it churns across the warm waters of the Western Pacific Ocean toward Japan.

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The storm rapidly intensified Monday night and Tuesday morning, into the equivalent of a strong Category 4 hurricane on the cusp of Category 5 status, with maximum sustained winds of at least 155 miles per hour. It then intensified further on Tuesday, into a high-end Category 5 beast of a storm.

Super Typhoon Vongfong is heading for Japan, which is still recovering from Typhoon Phanfone over the weekend.

A one-two punch of typhoons, coming in a season that has battered Japan with several other intense storms, could result in severe, life-threatening flooding and mudslides, depending on Super Typhoon Vongfong's ultimate track and intensity as it approaches on Sunday and Monday. Due to cooler ocean temperatures and stronger upper atmospheric winds, it is highly unlikely that Vongfong will still be this powerful when it strikes Japan.

Image of Super Typhoon Vongfong using NASA’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), which shows the storm illuminated by moonlight.

But based on satellite imagery, Vongfong has reached an intensity level that few storms on Earth ever achieve, and it may still be intensifying slightly. It is likely to maintain high-end Category 5 intensity, with sustained winds of greater than 155 miles per hour, on Tuesday night into Wednesday.

The storm may weaken considerably before it hits Japan, but could still be a sizable Category 2 or possibly Category 3 storm at that point.

Intense storms such as this experience cycles in which their eyewall, which is the area of towering thunderstorms that contain the storm's fiercest winds surrounding the eye, can temporarily collapse and be replaced by another one. When this happens, the storm's intensity temporarily decreases.

Computer models are not yet skilled at forecasting such hiccups, which are known as eyewall replacement cycles, and it is possible that Vongfong will undergo such an event in the near future.

Vongfong is also the most powerful storm on the planet this year, based on estimated minimum central air pressure (the lower the pressure, the stronger the storm). By that metric, it has approached the intensity of Super Typhoon Haiyan, which decimated parts of the Philippines in 2013.

Computer model projections show that the storm, which is currently moving west over the open waters of the Western Pacific Ocean, will make a sharp turn to the north and northwest late this week, while slowing down in forward speed. It will begin weakening as it moves closer to Japan, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center, but the forecast track takes it near or over mainland Japan, including major cities such as Tokyo.

Computer model ensemble projections for Super Typhoon Vongfong. Each track represents a different model run with slightly different initial conditions fed into the model.

Considerable uncertainty exists regarding the storm's track and intensity several days in advance, but computer models in the last few days have consistently been predicting either a very close call or a direct hit on Japan. In fact, the predicted path is extremely similar to Typhoon Phanfone, which brought 70 mph winds to Tokyo.

If the storm does strike Japan, the biggest threat it will pose will come in the form of water. Parts of Japan received up to two feet of rain from Typhoon Phanfone over the weekend, and two other typhoons that have hit this year also dumped copious amounts of rainfall. Given that Japan is a mountainous country, there could be a high danger of mudslides along mountain slopes.

The Western Pacific has spawned four super typhoons so far this year, each with sustained winds at or greater than 150 miles per hour. The other storms were Super Typhoons Halong, Rammasun, Phanfone and Neoguri. Of those four, three of them — Halong, Neoguri and Phanfone — went on to strike Japan, albeit in weaker form.

The storm activity in the Pacific, both the western and eastern parts of the ocean, contrasts sharply with the Atlantic Ocean, which has been in a state of hibernation for much of this hurricane season.

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