Japan’s future typhoons: disruptive, deadly and destructive

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

Six typhoons have made landfall this year on the Japanese archipelago, already giving 2016 the distinction of being the second-worst year in terms of direct typhoon hits in modern times. But it’s only Sept. 25 — the season’s not nearly over and we’re getting closer to matching or surpassing the 2004 record when 10 of those unwelcome visitors pounded Japan.

The 10th typhoon of 2016 (aka Lionrock), in particular, promises to be long remembered. Weekly Playboy (Oct. 3) described it as a “stampeding typhoon” and, aside from its destructive power, it can claim several other distinctions, the first being its longevity of 11 days, three hours. Its erratic trajectory was unprecedented as well. After soaking Honshu and much of Hokkaido it went on to wreak more havoc in Russia’s Far East and North Korea.

Weekly Playboy quotes professor Kosuke Ito of Ryukyu University saying that No. 10 was caused by a larger than normal “monsoon vortex,” a counterclockwise mass of air that usually appears around the equator but which this year moved as far north as the Philippines and Mariana Islands, which gave No. 10 more power when it moved westward.

“In addition, the cold air vortex that typically stays in the Sea of Japan moved southward, and the two of them affected the movement of No. 10,” Ito explained.

This typhoon hit Japan’s northern Tohoku region particularly hard. It took three full weeks to restore access to some communities in Iwate Prefecture that were isolated by flood damage, with some homes reportedly still without electric power. It also arrived just as Hokkaido’s farmers were preparing to harvest rice, potatoes and other crops. Its impact on agriculture has yet to be fully assessed, but articles have already appeared predicting that rice and curry — a staple of school cafeterias and salaryman lunches — may vanish temporarily due to shortages of carrots, onions and potatoes.

What on Earth is going on?

Hironori Fudeyasu, associate professor at Yokohama National University and author of “Taifu no Shotai” (“The True Character of Typhoons”), told Weekly Playboy, “The number of typhoons tends to be fewer when the weather pattern shifts from El Nino to La Nina, and more in the case of the reverse.”

Since the pattern is shifting this year, the first typhoon to be spawned in the Pacific didn’t develop until July 3, the second-latest ever recorded.

The annual average number of typhoons that make landfall in Japan during August is 0.9. Four landed this year, making 2016 equal with the record high set in 1962. Fudeyasu attributes this to a combination of factors, including that Japan is squeezed between two high-pressure systems, one over Tibet and the other over the Pacific.

“The typhoons in seas proximate to Japan were directed to the northeast or northwest through a ‘valley’ between the pressure fronts, that channeled them past Kanto, Tohoku and Hokkaido,” he explained.

It may be stating the obvious, but ongoing climate change is probably also altering weather patterns.

“Global warming is definitely progressing, and although Japan’s total annual rainfall hasn’t changed, measurements indicate a trend for rain to fall less frequently but in greater amounts over a brief period,” Fudeyasu noted. “Some research points to a trend that typhoons will be more powerful.”

So what can we expect over the next couple of months, before the season ends?

“The heat will linger for a while longer and the rain front that marks the start of autumn is normal, so we can expect typical autumn weather,” Yuji Sugie, weather announcer for the NTV Network, is quoted as saying in Aera (Sep. 19). “In previous months, typhoons have spawned in latitudes closer to Japan, but it is likely they will begin spawning further south to the seas east of the Philippines.”

Sugie described the trajectories of such typhoons as a “banana curve route,” transcribing an arc as they move northward from Okinawa to the four main islands. He offered the prediction that the irregular pattern of typhoons seen up to now will revert to that of a typical autumn typhoon season.

Hopefully weather forecasting science will at least develop more effective warnings to prevent typhoon tragedies, such as that caused by Vera, which struck the Chubu region on Sept. 26, 1959. Also called the Isewan Typhoon, it was deadliest in Japan’s modern history. Although its trajectory was tracked in advance, sufficient warnings were not issued. Vera left behind an unprecedented swath of destruction: almost 5,000 dead, hundreds missing, nearly 40,000 injured and 834,000 houses damaged. It was nearly as deadly as the more recent Typhoon Haiyan (aka Yolanda) that devastated the central Philippines in November 2013.

The Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, underscored another aspect of nature’s ferocity: wave power. Friday (Sep. 30-Oct. 7) reported that the 6-meter high waves generated by typhoon No. 10’s 215-km/hr winds on Aug. 30 damaged the concrete breakwater built to protect Yoriiso, a fishing port near Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, breaking it into fragments.

Friday also issued a reminder that the heavy rains brought on by recent typhoons may aggravate the damage wrought by earthquakes. Professor emeritus Masashi Hayakawa of the University of Electro-Communications in Chofu, west Tokyo, who also serves as chairman of the Earthquake Prediction Society of Japan, pointed out that Tohoku and southern Hokkaido may be due for a medium-intensity earthquake, and expressed concerns that the heavy rains left the ground in a softened condition, raising the possibility of secondary or tertiary damage.

“We need to be particularly watchful of landslides in mountainous regions, which can destroy buildings,” he said.