Saturday, May 4, 2013

Natural Disaster: Cyclone Nargis

Today marks the anniversary of a recent natural disaster of huge proportions. Cyclone Nargis hit the country of Myanmar (Burma) on May 2, 2008, leaving at least 138,000 people dead and causing over $10 billion US dollars in damage. The UN estimates over 2.4 million people were severely affected by the storm. It was the worst natural disaster in the recorded history of the country, and the second deadliest named cyclone of all time, behind Typhoon Nina in 1975.

Nargis was the first named tropical cyclone of the North Indian Ocean cyclone season. It developed on April 27, 2008 in the Bay of Bengal and quickly strengthened. By landfall on May 2, the Joint Typhoon Warning Center estimated peak winds of at least 215 km/hr (135 mph), equivalent to a weak category 4 storm on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane scale.

The storm took the worst track possible as it turned sharply eastward and headed toward the low lying areas of Myanmar, rather than the more mountainous areas to the north. The great death toll from the storm was largely the result of a storm surge of at least 3.6 meters (12 ft.) that moved 40 km up the highly populated low-lying Irrawaddy river delta. Much of the protective vegetation of the delta had been cleared to make room for rice paddies and shrimp farms, making the area more vulnerable to intense storm surges. It was Asia's Hurricane Katrina, but with even deadlier consequences.

Since the storm, research scientist Bo-wen Shen has been working with NASA and the Pleiades supercomputer to try to simulate the Cyclone Nargis using the latest computer models. He has been able to replicate the formation of the cyclone five days in advance, giving some hope that future storms can be predicted early enough to try to move people out of harm's way. However, moving millions of people from the path of a storm even days in advance is not an easy task.


Image of Cyclone Nargis on May 1, 2008 courtesy of NASA

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