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Asian Typhoon Season Nears Its Peak

September 14, 1999

TOKYO (AP) _ They swirl in each year by the dozen, wiping out crops, flooding villages and sending hundreds of thousands of Asians scrambling for shelter.

As this year’s typhoon season builds to its crescendo, damage statistics and death tolls show that even in a relatively good year the Pacific’s summer cyclones, like the hurricanes of the Atlantic, are as deadly as they are hard to predict.

Experts have a pretty good idea of what to expect once the storms are big enough to track by satellite. But they acknowledge that the ability to forecast how bad a season is likely to be before it starts is still a long way off.

For the world’s most populous region, that knowledge could be crucial.

Japan’s Meteorological Agency used to issue annual forecasts of how many typhoons to expect _ but gave up three years ago.

``We basically realized we didn’t have the technology to make a really reliable forecast,″ said Tatsuo Ueno, head of the agency’s typhoon center.

So far, this year’s season has been considered relatively light.

Still, last month alone, Typhoon Olga killed 59 in the Philippines, and a Taiwanese jetliner landing in Hong Kong during Tropical Storm Sam flipped over and burst into flames, killing two and injuring more than 200.

Last year, typhoon-related agricultural damage in Japan was estimated at $2.1 billion; floods due in part to typhoons killed more than 2,000 in China; 269 died in South Korea because of typhoons and rainstorms; and 543,367 homes were destroyed or damaged by typhoons in the Philippines.

Typically, Asia’s typhoon season follows a fairly regular pattern, beginning around early July and hitting its peak in late September or October. The spirals of wind and rain work their way up from south to north. With satellite monitoring, their landfall can be estimated with relative accuracy.

The problem is predicting the season’s severity: how many storms to expect and how strong they will be.

According to Masatoshi Yoshino, professor of meteorology at Aichi University in western Japan, La Nina, the lesser known sister of the famed El Nino weather phenomenon, is expected to bring more _ but smaller _ typhoons to Asia.

La Nina, which lowers the temperature of the ocean surface in the equatorial Pacific, is also seen by the U.S. government as a likely source of more frequent tropical storms and hurricanes over the North Atlantic basin in the months ahead.

But the significance of La Nina is not agreed upon by all.

W.K. Kwan, principal experimental officer at the Hong Kong Observatory, said there has been no evidence that the weather pattern this season has been affected by La Nina.

``The average number of typhoons a year is six, and we have five this year,″ he said.

Tomonori Matsuura, a researcher at Japan’s National Research Institute for Earth Science and Disaster Prevention, is also skeptical.

``There is a distinct relation between typhoons and the difference in temperature between the sea and the atmosphere,″ he said. ``But we’re still far from being able to predict how the next typhoon pattern is going to be.″

In the meantime, governments around the region are working on ways to lessen the amount of damage typhoons wreak.

Fourteen countries in Asia _ from Laos to South Korea _ exchange typhoon and other weather-related information on a daily basis. In November, the annual Typhoon Committee of Asian nations will be held in Seoul.

The Japanese government has put funds into strengthening dams and breakwaters against floods. It also is requiring new buildings to be resilient to strong winds and rain.

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