Typhoon Hagibis Is Japan's Latest Multi-Billion-Dollar Disaster

Search-and-rescue workers in Nagano, Japan.
Photo: Getty Images

Typhoon Hagibis may now be a swirl of clouds near Alaska, but its impacts on Japan are still playing out. The country was walloped by the storm over the weekend, with some areas receiving 40 percent of their annual rain in the span of a few days.

Floodwaters have left at least 55 dead, and search-and-rescue teams are still scattered across the hardest-hit prefectures. Hagibis is likely to be a multi-billion-dollar disaster, with extensive damages to homes, businesses, and some of Japan’s fabled (and it turns out, expensive) bullet trains.

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Typhoon Hagibis spun up into a monster storm, rapidly intensifying to a Category 5 super typhoon early last week. But while the winds eroded to Category 1 level by the time of landfall, it still brought incredibly intense rainfall to the eastern flank of the main island of Honshu. The highest 24-hour rainfall total topped out at 37.1 inches in Hakone, which sits about 50 miles southwest of Tokyo and 20 miles southeast of Mount Fuji. According to the UK Met Office, that’s the second-highest daily rainfall total ever recorded in Japan. The location also set a daily rainfall total record (that is, midnight-to-midnight as opposed to any 24-hour period) for any location in Japan.

The heavy rain brought widespread flooding. Rivers overtopped their banks, and according to NHK, parts of the Nagano prefecture located to the west of Tokyo saw nearly 10 feet of water inundate homes near the Chikuma River. A service yard for the Hokuriku Shinkansen bullet train was also flooded, damaging 10 trains. According to the BBC, each train is valued at $30 million. Whether they’re all a complete write-off remains to be seen, but the damage is just the tip of the iceberg for Japan.

Hagibis will almost certainly be a multi-billion dollar disaster, adding to the list of hellacious weather calamities that have befallen Japan in recent years. Typhoon Faxai hit Japan just last month and wrought $7 billion in damage. Last year’s Typhoon Trami and Typhoon Jebi caused a combined $15.9 billion in losses, according a report from Munich Re. That means four of Japan’s most costly typhoons have occurred since 2018.

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And then there are last year’s Japanese floods caused by plain old heavy, record-setting rain. They displaced 2 million people and cost $9.5 billion. The point is, Japan has had a rough go of it, weather-wise.

It’s impossible to talk about this string of meteorological mayhem without talking about climate change. Research published late last year shows that typhoon tracks are marching northward. And then there’s the reality that heavy downpours are becoming more common and intense as the world heats up, due to the basic physics that a warmer atmosphere holds more water. And hotter oceans only speed up the process of water evaporating and reaching the atmosphere, which of course eventually comes crashing down to Earth. It’s why the category of the storm doesn’t always tell the story of the damage.

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