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Tracking Cyclone Pam

Yachts wrecked by the storm in a harbor near Port Vila, Vanuatu Yachts wrecked by the storm in a harbor near Port Vila, Vanuatu Graham Crumb/Humans of Vanuatu
16 Mar
As Vanuatu recovers from the island’s worst ever natural disaster, Geographical looks at how Pacific cyclones are tracked and how Cyclone Pam’s impact will be mapped

The full impact from Severe Tropical Cyclone Pam on Vanuatu is still unknown, although early indications suggest that it may be the nation’s worst ever natural disaster. But Pacific island nations are far from powerless when it comes to tracking cyclones.

Monitoring cyclones in the Pacific Ocean presents a challenge because there few observations from which meteorologists can make predictions . ‘We use satellite data to work out what will occur, and that information is fed to regional warning centres with numerical models that create a track for the cyclone,’ says Julian Heming, a Met Office scientist who studies tropical cyclones.

Fiji’s meteorological service takes responsibility for cyclone prediction in the South Pacific Ocean.

Cyclone Pam’s formation was predicted a week in advance, according to Heming. ‘It’s impossible to know in advance exactly which islands will be affected,’ he says, although once the storm forms a general track can be produced. ‘We knew the most populated northern island in Vanuatu was going to be hit three days before it hit the main islands,’ he adds.

65643Cyclone Pam’s track (Image: Fiji Meteorological Service)

‘One of the main skills is to make consistent, best predictions from different models,’ says Heming. A meteorologist needs to determine the best model for a particular data set.  ‘Particularly difficult is precisely tracking storms that hit places such as Pacific island nations. These are small areas in a large ocean.’

Cyclone predictions have improved over recent years due to improved satellite technology. ‘In terms of getting better observational data and models, there’s always scope for improvement,’ says Heming.

Although it may appear that Pacific cyclones are becoming a more serious threat – with Typhoon Haiyan having had a huge impact on the region in November 2013 – Heming suggests it’s not possible to say whether there are any discernible short-term changes in Pacific cyclones, and not enough data to draw conclusions about long-term trends. ‘In the whole southern hemisphere we might only get 10–12 cyclones yearly,’ he says.

Map Action, a UK-based charity that provides mapping for the UN and disaster management agencies after natural disasters, is deploying two team members to Vanuatu.

‘The airport is damaged and receiving commercial traffic intermittently at the moment. One team member should arrive tomorrow, possibly through a military flight,’ says Liz Hughes,  Map Action’s chief executive.

Map Action previously deployed to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Vanuatu experienced a similar storm strength during Cyclone Pam, according to Hughes.

uEZPVkmnhBwuOpAM.thumbnail 700Cyclone Pam’s storm track and rainfall levels (Image: Map Action)

‘It’s not really clear what’s happened. Telecommunications are down,’ says Hughes. The United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team arrived at the archipelago today, Hughes says. UNDAC  helps coordinate the international response to a disaster. Map Action will help provide the organisation – and Vanuatu’s National Disaster Management Office – with situational analysis maps.

Map Action was aware that the cyclone was moving through the Pacific, and had produced a few storm tracking, accumulated rainfall and storm stength maps in specific locations in advance. Over the next few days the organisation will begin to produce comprehensive maps across  the archipelag.

‘We’ll be mapping the impact on populations, infrastructure and livelihoods,’ says Hughes. ‘Vanuatu is a very agriculturally dependent country so we’ll be looking at how that sector has been affected.’

The Met Office Stormtracker follows cyclones across the Pacific Ocean

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