The monster that just missed

Cyclone Fantala emerged in the Indian Ocean in a year with one of the strongest El Ninos ever observed and the hottest air temperatures on record. Photo / Nasa
Cyclone Fantala emerged in the Indian Ocean in a year with one of the strongest El Ninos ever observed and the hottest air temperatures on record. Photo / Nasa

Mankind just got lucky with the strongest storm measured over the Indian Ocean.

Nasa's Aqua satellite captured Fantala using its Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer as it reached wind speeds of 280km/h on Tuesday, according to the US military's Joint Typhoon Warning Centre.

Fortunately Fantala ominously churned near Madagascar without crossing the shore.

However, more such megastorms are likely with El Nino.

Last October, Patricia came ashore in Mexico with the strongest hurricane winds ever recorded on Earth, at over 320km/h. Then, this February, Winston broke the windspeed record for the southwest Pacific Ocean basin, when it devastated one of Fiji's main islands with winds topping 289km/h. Fantala was equivalent to a category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale used in the Atlantic basin.

Reliable satellite-based records for the Indian Ocean only became available in 1990, but 2015 and 2016 have already yielded the first- and third-most powerful cyclones in 26 years of record-keeping.

Fantala fed on a combination of weather patterns.

The first is what some called "Godzilla El Nino," which infused the Indian Ocean with water between 1 to 2 degrees Celsius above average, and that is accompanied by longer-term warming caused by human-produced greenhouse gases.

El Ninos are classified as "very strong" when surface waters warm to 2 degrees Celsius higher than average for at least three months running. That happened in parts of the Pacific this winter for only the third time on record; 1982-1983 and 1997-1998 were the others.

A report issued by the National Academy of Sciences last month added credence to the theory that human-induced climate change increases the probability of extreme weather events, as well as the magnitude of those events.

While it would be incorrect to claim that this year's record-breaking tropical systems are because of human-induced climate change, it is reasonable to include as a factor in the abnormal sea temperatures that have fuelled the storms.

- Washington Post

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