Snow in the hills outside Los Angeles, move over. There’s a new freak weather event in town.
Typhoon Wutip is currently gathering strength just south of Guam, making it the first typhoon of 2019 and just the second one on record to spin up in this part of the Pacific in February, according to data kept by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The freak typhoon is just south of the island, but is making a sharp turn northward and could clip Guam this weekend.
As of late Friday night local time, Wutip was packing sustained winds of 120 mph, making it the equivalent of a Category 3 hurricane pushing wave heights up to 41 feet according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center. Gusts are cranking up to 150 mph, and the storm is projected to maintain this level of intensity into Saturday before weakening a little as it continues to wend its way toward the northwest.
While Wutip’s stats aren’t as exceptional as some of the other monster typhoons that can roar across this part of the Pacific, its timing is certainly weird. Only one other typhoon has ever been recorded this close to Guam in February, according to NOAA. That would be Typhoon Irma for my tropical Pacific stans, which skirted the island as a Category 1-level storm in 1953. The island saw wind gusts up to 63 mph and 6 inches of rain according to historical reports. Whether Wutip outdoes that remains to be seen.
While a lot has changed between 1953 and 2019, there’s one thing both years have in common: A weak El Niño. This year’s El Niño—a climate pattern characterized by warmer than normal waters in the eastern tropical Pacific—was just declared last week. In addition to warm waters, El Niño is also characterized by weaker trade winds that generally blow from east to west. Those winds are usually strongest in the winter owing to the sharp temperature gradient between the pole and the equator, and that strength tends to inhibit typhoons from forming in this region over the winter months.
But this year’s El Niño has helped quell those trade winds, allowing Wutip to spin up. Ocean temperatures are also about 1 degree Fahrenheit above normal for this time of year according to NOAA, giving Wutip further fuel to draw on. Hotter oceans are one of the clearest indicators of climate change.
All this puts Guam in a weird spot of having to prepare for possible typhoon impacts in what is essentially the off-season. It currently sits on the outer edge of the cone of probability for where the storm could track with the southwest tip of the island most at-risk. But even if Guam doesn’t get a direct hit, the storm’s winds and rains could still lash the island. Tropical storm-force winds (that is, winds in excess of 39 mph) current extend 184 miles to the northeast of the storm’s core and hurricane-force winds extend 46 miles outward. Given Wutip’s northward turn and that the storm is already less than 160 miles from Guam’s shores, it is all but certain the island will feel the storm’s effects in some form.