Just your normal cyclone in the Mozambique Channel.
GIF: CIMSS

While the U.S. is under assault from a historic bomb cyclone, another freaky storm is spinning the southern hemisphere. Cyclone Idai strafed through Madagascar earlier this week and is now on track to make landfall in Mozambique on Thursday night with major impacts.

Idai has had a bit of a wild ride. The storm began organizing off the coast of Tanzania and drifting east toward Madagascar over the weekend as a weak tropical storm before turning back west toward Africa. As it churned over the warm waters of the Mozambique Channel that separates the island from Africa’s mainland, the storm exploded. Analysis by the Joint Typhoon Warning Center shows that its maximum winds rose from 45 mph to 105 mph over a 24-hour period between Sunday and Monday, in a textbook example of rapid intensification. Idai kept escalating with winds topping out on Monday at 120 mph, the equivalent of a major Category 3 hurricane.

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That made it the seventh major cyclone of the Indian Ocean season, more than double the average for this time of year.

The storm has weakened a bit on Tuesday, before picking up steam again Wednesday. It currently has sustained winds of 104 mph with gusts to 127 mph according to the last JTWC update, though they could be higher according to more recent analysis. Idai also has a clearly defined eye on satellite imagery as it heads toward a likely Thursday landfall near Beira, Mozambique, the country’s fourth-largest city on Thursday night. The last time the city faced a tropical cyclone was 1962 when Category 1 Cyclone Daisy made landfall, though a number of other cyclones have struck the surrounding area.

When Idai comes ashore, it will pack powerful winds and drive pounding surf. Mozambique’s National Meteorological Institute is forecasting wind gusts to reach 130 mph and more than six inches of rain in 24 hours, though up to a foot could fall. The latter is what the city normally sees for the entire month of March, which means there could be major flooding associated with Idai. If the storm makes landfall north of the city, storm surge could become a serious issue as well as winds wrap around and push water ashore and up the Pungwe River similar to what happened during Hurricane Florence last year (though not quite on that scale of destruction). Local news reports indicate rescue teams are already amassing ahead of the storm.

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The Southern Indian Ocean can see tropical storms form nearly anytime of year, but the peak season runs from December through March. Of the storms that form there, less than five percent make landfall in southeast Africa according to research published in 2015. Storms as strong as Idai are particularly notable. Only two Category 3 or greater storms have made landfall within 200 nautical miles of Beira, according to data kept by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

As for the influence of climate change, it’s tough to say. A study published last year shows that the Southern Indian Ocean could actually see fewer cyclones as the planet warms, leading to a decrease in rainfall for the region. Whatever the future holds, though, the impacts of Idai are still likely to be pretty severe.