Take a look at that image up there. It’s the planetary version of ಠ_ಠ. Earth, it appears, is sick of our shit and it’s sent the message via two monstrous cyclones in the Pacific.
Hurricane Walaka and Super Typhoon Kong-rey are out there staring down satellites, and by extension, their human creators. The storms underwent a dramatic transformation Sunday night into Monday and are now the two strongest storms on the face of the Earth.
Both underwent rapid intensification, a meteorological process where cyclones’—the generic name for hurricanes and typhoons—wind speeds crank up at least 35 mph over a 24-hour stretch. Walaka, situated in the Central Pacific, was officially a Category 4 storm with winds of 150 mph as of 11 a.m. Hawaii Standard Time, though meteorologist Ryan Maue estimated that based on satellite observations, it was likely much stronger by mid-morning local time.
Meanwhile Kong-rey, churning in the Western Pacific about 200 miles southeast of Taipei, was packing sustained winds upwards of 155 mph, the equivalent of a strong Category 4 hurricane. It could menace Japan late this week, continuing a string of rotten weather luck that’s plagued the country all year.
Jeff Masters, a meteorologist at Weather Underground, told Earther that the official forecast was likely underestimating Kong-rey as well. In both cases, that’s due to something forecasters use when looking at satellite images known as the Dvorak constraint. Basically if a storm looks like it’s intensifying too fast, they assume satellite error is responsible.
Assuming the storms continue to strengthen and officially obtain Category 5 status, they would become the first pair of Category 5 storms ever recorded at the same time in the Pacific, according to Masters.
“We came within 6 hours of this happening in 2009, though,” he told Earther. Then, Super Typhoon Lupit became a Category 5 in the Western Pacific just six hours after Hurricane Rick weakened slightly. Alas!
The freaky sight is likely due to a burbling El Niño, which tends to warm the waters in the Pacific and calm down winds that can slow down hurricanes, particularly in the central and eastern parts of the ocean. Indeed, the eastern half of the Pacific has been going off. One measure of that is accumulated cyclone energy (ACE), which takes into account wind speeds of every cyclone for every hour of its life, providing a better metric for how serious a hurricane season was rather than just listing the number of storms. What was a slightly above average season for the Eastern Pacific took off like a rocket in August and the storm parade hasn’t stopped since then. ACE is more than double the average for this time of year. The western Pacific is outpacing its average for this time of year as well, with ACE running about 30 percent above normal according to data maintained by Colorado State University.
Climate change is also heating up the oceans around the world, providing more warm water to fuel cyclones. A study out last week looked at the influence of climate change and natural factors on the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season (short answer: climate change played a role) and the researchers plan to do a similar analysis for 2018 in the Pacific. Which seems like a good idea.
Update 8:30 a.m. ET: Well, they did it. Both Kong-rey and Walaka have reached Category 5 status, making for a harrowing bit of history.