In the eye of the typhoon: Japan isn’t ready for the climate crisis

Typhoons will become more intense as a result of global warming, but Japan has to do more to prepare itself for this perfect storm.

“Statistically significant long-term changes aren’t seen in the number of tropical cyclones forming in the Northwest Pacific Ocean and those approaching Japan in the last seventy years,” i.e. in the period for which reliable data is available. “It isn’t the case that the number of tropical cyclones is increasing, at least in the period between 1951 and 2019. The number of strong tropical cyclones also doesn’t show any statistically significant long-term trends”.

Atsushi Goto, climate expert at the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) weighs his words carefully. They may seem surprising in light of disastrous typhoons like Maysak and Haishen, both of which hit this season, separated only by a few days. However, “the intensity of tropical cyclones is expected to increase in association with climate change,” Goto adds. If, up to now, Japan’s typhoon season – concentrated in the months of September and August – hasn’t changed significantly, the dark clouds on the horizon appear more threatening than ever.

Damage caused by Typhoon Hagibis
Damage caused by Typhoon Hagibis, which ravaged Japan in October 2019 © Carl Court/Getty Images

What are typhoons and how do they form?

Typhoons, hurricanes and cyclones are different names for the same meteorological phenomenon, known scientifically as a tropical cyclone. It forms, as the name suggests, in the tropics: warm air rises from the oceans and results in the formation of clouds and winds that, fuelled by the oceans’ heat and water vapour, lead to the Earth’s most violent storms.

These are known as tropical cyclones when their winds reach 119 kilometres per hour, and their name changes based on their location. Typhoons occur in the region of the Northwest Pacific Ocean and affect countries such as Japan, North and South Korean, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Typhoons Haishen, Maysak and Hagibis

The first recorded use of the word “typhoon” in English dates back to 1588. It is believed that the term derives from the Chinese word tai fung and ṭūfān in Arabic. Typhoons are frequent phenomena, with whom the peoples of Eastern and Southeastern Asia have historically learnt to cope with. But things are changing.

On the 3rd of September, Maysak made landfall in South Korea, killing two people after having caused a number of injuries on the Japanese island of Kyushu and, further south, the shipwreck of a cargo vessel with 43 crew members on board (three of whom were saved) and almost 6,000 cows. Haishen, instead, made landfall on the 7th of September, again in South Korea, leaving a path of destruction behind itself in Japan: two victims, four people missing, hundreds injured and two million evacuated. The fact that these tropical cyclones took place only a few days from one another, “is a rare case but it isn’t the first time,” Goto explains.

The destruction caused by these events pales in comparison to that of Hagibis in October 2019, one of the strongest typhoons to hit Japan in decades, which killed hundreds of people and led to over ten million US dollars in damage as well as the interruption of the Rugby World Cup. The wounds left behind by the storm are still visible all over the country. The fact that it took place in October isn’t anomalous in and of itself, as statistically this occurs once every five years, but “it caused crucial damage and flooding in a very wide area,” Goto explains: “I never expected to see Japan suffer such large damage, especially the east of the country. Usually, when typhoons approach eastern Japan they’re in the stage of weakening. But Hagibis kept its intensity”.

Damage caused by Typhoon Haishen in Japan
A landslide caused by Typhoon Haishen, 8 September 2020 © Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images

Climate change and tropical cyclones

“The energy source of tropical cyclones is water vapour in the atmosphere,” says Goto, who coordinates international cooperation activities for the department dedicated to climate predictions of the Tokyo Climate Center, the JMA’s international arm and one of the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO)’s specialised Regional Climate Centres. “When water vapour condenses to form clouds or raindrops, it releases heat. This heat strengthens the circulation or upward motion of the cyclone. The fact that a warmer atmosphere can contain more water vapour is one of the mechanisms that explains why tropical cyclones will intensify under warming climate conditions“.

Satellite image of a typhoon
Satellite image of a typhoon. “To develop weather forecasts and climate predictions, the first step is to know the current conditions all over the world – because there are no borders in the sky. This is why the WMO has initiated international cooperation for data exchange and collection. The next step is to input this data into the numerical weather forecast model; a kind of virtual Earth in the supercomputer. This model can predict future conditions of the weather and climate,” explains Atsushi Goto of the Tokyo Climate Center. “JMA provides typhoon forecasts only for the next five days – this is the limitation of technology” © NOAA via Getty Images

Temperatures, in fact, are already rising. In August, those of the ocean’s surface south of Japan were much higher than average according to the JMA. National temperature averages on land have already increased by 1.24 degrees Celsius per century, faster than the global rate. Not only. From the 1970s to today, “we see a significant long-term increase in the annual number of days with more than 200 millimetres of rain in Japan, which we predict will continue steadily or increase more rapidly,” Goto explains. “On the other hand, the annual number of days with precipitation has decreased. This trend indicates that the risk of drought will increase in the future, as well as that of landslides and floods”.

Graph showing increase in average temperatures in Japa
Courtesy of the Japan Meteorological Agency’s Tokyo Climate Center
Graph showing annual number of days with over 200 mm rainfall in Japan
Courtesy of the Japan Meteorological Agency’s Tokyo Climate Center

A resilient Japan?

Japan is particularly subject to natural calamities; typhoons, torrential rain, landslides, and more. The country even has a ministry of disaster management. However, it is yet to be seen whether its citizens’s historic tenacity and capacity to get back on their feet even after the worst catastrophes will translate into resilience in the face of the climate crisis.

The Japanese state has undertaken large-scale public works to control the flow of virtually all its rivers, and therefore reduce the impact of flooding, especially starting from the middle of the last century when a violent typhoon killed over a thousand people in 1958. “Japan has used past rainfall records to design infrastructure, such as how high barriers should be: this won’t be enough to adapt to future climate change,” Goto points out.

Atsushi Goto davanti alla sede dell’Agenzia meteorologica giapponese
Atsushi Goto of the Tokyo Climate Center (TCC) in front of the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA)’s headquarters in the Japanese capital. “The TCC serves as a regional climate centre for Asia under the WMO’s international cooperation mechanism. It provides seasonal forecasts, El Niño and La Niña outlooks, global warming information, observed climate data all over the world, and analysis of factors of extreme events in Japan and Asia”. Its area of responsibility includes Japan, Cambodia, China, Laos, Malaysia, North and South Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam © Mara Budgen

While the government is engaged in research into how new infrastructure can be built based on future predictions rather than past statistics, engineering isn’t a silver bullet. For instance, levees built over the course of decades failed to contain the flooding of rivers during Typhoon Hagibis’ record rainfall (90 centimetres fell in just 24 hours in the area of Hakone, southwest of Tokyo). The only real solution is tackling the underlying causes behind the intensification of extreme weather events. “Japan’s climate change mitigation efforts aren’t enough, there’s a lot more it can do,” Goto believes. For example, the country hasn’t strengthened its Nationally Determined Contributions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, even though all countries are called to do so in order to respect the Paris Agreement‘s provisions.

Damage caused by Typhoon Hagibis in Japan
Japanese people are known for their resilience even in the face of the most devastating natural disasters. However, the intensification of extreme weather events due to climate change must be tackled with concrete measures to mitigate global warming © Carl Court/Getty Images

Awareness isn’t enough

“Japanese citizens are increasingly recognising the risks of a changing climate, but there’s a gap between awareness and actual changes in habits or behaviours. I want to bridge this gap through my work, by sharing our expert knowledge with the public,” Goto says. In the face of the climate crisis, the scientist can’t be neutral. “I’m worried,” he confesses. “According to the JMA’s future projections, the frequency of heavy rainfall will double by 2100. I hope our projections are wrong and that we can change the future through our behaviour and mitigation efforts. For this reason, I’ll continue studying the changing climate”. But that’s not enough. It is up to individuals, communities and institutions to act upon Goto’s observations and analyses, and those of all the other scientists who, like him, are raising the alarm.

Statistics on typhoons

The average number of typhoons that form in the area of the Northwest Pacific Ocean (formation), move towards Japan (approach) and hit the country (landfall). Period analysed: 1981-2010.
Annual total25,611,42,7
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