At least according to my reading of the latest weather, the once Supertyphoon Wipha -- now a mere tropical storm -- does not pose the dire threat to Shanghai originally feared. It's never good to have a powerful storm near a city that's home to 20 million people -- and it's never good to see millions evacuate (much less the postponing of Women's World Cup matches!). But it appears that Wipha won't even have an eye left when it passes Shanghai. This storm is chiefly a rainfall risk -- very serious, but as usual, it could have been worse.
Projected Track of Tropical Storm Wipha Joint Typhoon Warning Center It also could have been worse for Tokyo earlier this month when Typhoon Fitow approached, but ultimately did not hit directly and finished in a considerably weakened state. And it could have been worse for New York City in 1999 when it was affected by the gigantic Hurricane Floyd -- which by then had declined markedly from its strong Category 4 peak.
What am I driving at? Well, the City of London lists (PDF) the world's top financial centers (wonder if this has anything to do with the fact that London is number one). As I read it, quite a number of these are in hurricane territory. Shanghai is actually not on the global top ten list. However, on that list, storm-exposed New York comes in at number two, Hong Kong at number three, and Tokyo at number nine.
[Singapore, number four on the list, is probably too close to latitude zero to be considered at serious hurricane risk, but on the other hand, the rare equatorial Typhoon Vamei of 2001 seemed to have other ideas.]
What all this suggests to me is that at some point, simply due to the law of averages we are going to get a very strong storm directly hitting one of these extremely wealthy and highly populous places -- New York (# 2), Hong Kong (# 3), Tokyo (# 9). Consider Hong Kong for a moment. The Hong Kong Observatory helpfully provides an image of the tracks of storms that have scored "direct hits" at typhoon strength since 1956:
The most recent was Typhoon York in 1999, but this was only a Category 1 storm. Estimates suggest a recurrence of Typhoon Wanda of 1962, a stronger storm, would cause damages approaching $3 billion. And Wanda, though it was extremely damaging, is only recorded as a Category 2 typhoon at its peak.
And if Hong Kong awaits a very bad storm, what about New York? Well, if you add together projected sea level rise over the course of the century and a really bad hurricane -- say, Category 3 -- you can get much of the area under water:
A recent study by Rosenzweig and Gornitz in 2005 and 2006, using the GISS Atmosphere-Ocean Model global climate for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects a sea level rise of 15 to 19 inches by the 2050s in New York City. Adding as little as 1.5 feet of sea level rise by the 2050s to the surge for a category 3 hurricane on a worst-case track would cause extensive flooding in many parts of the city. Areas potentially under water include the Rockaways, Coney Island, much of southern Brooklyn and Queens, portions of Long Island City, Astoria, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Lower Manhattan, and eastern Staten Island from Great Kills Harbor north to the Verrazano Bridge.
Now, maybe this is just disaster porn. But I prefer thinking about worst-case scenarios before they happen. And there's no doubt that some of these worst case scenarios are very, very bad indeed. Every time we see a Wipha or a Fitow, then, we shouldn't merely breathe a sigh of relief -- we should redouble efforts to be ready for the day when nature stops doing us any favors.
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