State of calamity

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The Arroyo government has declared a state of calamity in the aftermath of typhoon “Reming.” But the real calamity is not only global and continuing; it is also likely to worsen.

Most Filipinos are probably wondering if “Reming” (international code name Durian) was an exception among the typhoons that usually hit the Philippines—or whether the Philippines and its neighboring countries will see more and more super-typhoons in the future.

“Reming” packed 200 kilometer per hour winds with 265 kph gusts, and dumped 466 millimeters of rainfall—the highest recorded in 40 years– on the Bicol and Southern Tagalog regions of Luzon. It caused mudslides and floods, and killed more than a thousand people, most of them in the province of Albay.

While most of the 20 or so typhoons that cross the Philippines yearly had been middling to moderate in wind power, the last four have not been. Some of the strongest typhoons to hit the Philippines in decades occurred in the last quarter of the year.

The 130-160 kph winds of “Milenyo” (Xangsane) smashed into the country in September, causing more than P3 billion in property and crop damage and killing more than a hundred people.

“Milenyo” was followed by Paeng (Cimaron) and Queenie (Chebi) in October and November. Both were exceptionally powerful. “Queenie” had maximum winds of 120 kilometers per hour and gusts of up to 150 kph, while Paeng’s winds were 195 kph near the center, with gusts of up to 230 kph.

Both weathermen and those old enough to remember noted how unusual this was. But the bad news is that super typhoons may soon be the rule rather than the exception as the process known as global warming accelerates and few countries, especially those whose industries and vehicles emit the gases that are primarily responsible, do little or nothing about it.

Despite mounting evidence that the process is well on the way, the Bush government, for example, has chosen to base its policy on immediate US economic interests. The Howard government of Australia followed suit. Both refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, arguing that its provisions would constrict their respective industries. (The Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change amends the international treaty on climate change. It assigns mandatory targets for the reduction of “greenhouse gas” emissions to the signatory states.)

Scientists say these emissions, among them carbon dioxide from cars and industries burning fossil fuels, are responsible for the rise in the temperatures of the world’s oceans, which absorb most of the excess heat generated by the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The unremitting release of these gases made 2005 one of the hottest years on record. Rising temperatures have led to declines in the snow and ice coverage in the Northern Hemisphere, together with shorter winters and less snowfall. But one of the most disturbing events in many years was the collapse of the Larsen Ice Shelf off the Antarctic Peninsula. Scientists say that collapse is unprecedented in the last 11,000 years.

Global warming has already led to rising ocean levels as glaciers collapse and melt, leading to the flooding of coastal areas and the encroachment of sea water on low-lying island countries. But scientists say it also has an effect on the intensity of tropical cyclones, or typhoons.

Ocean temperature is among the factors that determine the strength of typhoons. The warmer the ocean, the stronger the typhoons. Rising ocean temperatures account for the increasing power of typhoons generated over the Pacific and striking Asian countries like the Philippines.

Scientists examining the duration and maximum wind speeds of typhoons over the last 30 years have found that their destructive power has increased around 70 percent in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Another study found that the number of super-typhoons has increased over the same period. These findings correlate with the rise in sea surface temperatures in, among other regions, the Pacific, where typhoons originate.

Rising sea levels also mean higher storm surges, even from relatively minor storms. A storm surge is a gush of water pushed inland by strong winds across the sea surface. Storm surges increase coastal flooding, and bring heavy rains that further increase the risk of flooding inland. The devastating floods that hit the country’s coasts in the last several years may be partly attributed to deforestation. But they were triggered by such surges.

The prospects for the future are not encouraging. The situation will probably worsen. Some estimates say the oceans will rise enough within the next 20 years to submerge island nations, while the power and frequency of super typhoons intensify, among other consequences.

Global warming is man-made. It began with the coming of the industrial age and the internal combustion engine. The solution to it is thus within human means—but unfortunately, mostly in the hands of the governments of the industrialized world whose countries are most responsible.

Countries like the Philippines, which are at the receiving end of the consequences (among them not only more devastating typhoons but also the permanent flooding, in the years to come, of its coastal areas) could press countries like the US to reduce greenhouse emissions, but probably won’t.

Reducing greenhouse emissions is scientifically possible, and in the long term even economically advantageous. But as usual, it is the short-sighted, self-serving leaderships that plague this country as well as the US and Australia among others that prevent governments from doing something other than declaring states of calamity that fall far short of dealing with the global state of calamity that’s already upon us.-

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