Burma: Forecasting Cyclones and Weather Disasters

Tropical Cyclone Nargis tore through Burma last Friday, but the true extent of the devastation it left remains unclear. The reason: Burma's notoriously secretive and repressive military junta has kept foreign disaster-relief workers out. Now the government, which calls the country Myanmar, is being blamed for not having done enough to warn its own people of a storm that, by some predictions, could eventually claim the lives of 100,000 people.

Burma's authorities say they began alerting their citizens immediately after the U.N. World Meteorological Organization (WMO)--alerted by a weather station in India--says it informed Burma's Department of Meteorology and Hydrology of the cyclone. That was on April 27, five days ahead of the storm's landfall. The WMO hasn't been able to verify the Burmese claim, but whatever happened, alerting the 6 million people living in the isolated nation's Irrawaddy Delta was no small task. Had the storm shifted slightly to the less populated and mountainous area to the north, the toll would have been far less deadly. "It was thought that this thing would be 50-100 miles further north at landfall, and the difference was everything as far as impact. That little range of hills would've taken a good deal of its speed away," says Jim Andrews, a senior operational weather forecaster at Accuweather.com.

But how much did meteorologists actually know about the catastrophe about to happen? Had the world failed to absorb certain lessons it should have from the nearby tsunami in 2004? And how much was the junta's limited communications infrastructure responsible for preventing early-warning systems from working, leading to the country's worst-ever disaster? To answer these questions, NEWSWEEK's Katie Paul spoke to Paul Drewniak, the Andover, Mass.-based manager of the Global Forecast Center at Weather Services International. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What kind of advance warning was there for this particular storm?
Paul Drewniak: There are several global computer-forecast guidance models that cover this type of typhoon [also known as a tropical cyclone] in the West Pacific or Bay of Bengal. Two of the most popular we rely on are the American model and the European model. Both of which advertised this typhoon fairly well. Typically, what happens is that the computer models indicate that there will be system as much as 10 days out. They typically don't have the intensity as accurate, but the model sees something out there. In the case of this typhoon, both computer models were indicating that something was going to be in the Bay of Bengal area four to seven days out.

So you knew a week before the storm hit that something might be coming?
Yes. Neither model advertised anywhere near the intensity of this system, with winds up to 150mph, but they were both saying something was going to happen, a week out. That's part of why this was such a tragic story. From the meteorological community's standpoint, this was not a surprise.

Do you know if the junta knew it was coming?
It's a good question, because the global meteorological community knew. Various governments' meteorological agencies--like our National Weather Service--are where these models run. So the Australian government runs their computer models, the Japanese government runs their models, the Europeans run theirs through the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting. And they saw that there was a likelihood that there would be at least a moderate typhoon in that area. Of course, it strengthened into a significant typhoon, but it wasn't a surprise.

And everyone has access to that information?
Different governments disseminate their computer forecasts in different ways. The United States and Europe are leaders in that regard, so you can pull them up on the Web for free. In other parts of the world, there are some restrictions placed on the data being made available to the general public—there may be a fee, for example. The Joint Typhoon Warning Center is a government agency, primarily the Navy, that closely relates to other governments, and they covered the system. If you had gone on Google and looked up the JTWC, you would've seen it on there.

At what point did you realize it was going to be as bad as it turned out to be?
We knew up to 72 hours before the storm made landfall that it would be a major typhoon. It was already a significant storm. Within 72 hours, you have at least a moderate confidence that it's going to be within 100 miles, and within 48 hours it was pretty evident it was going to make landfall where it did.

Predicting where it was going to hit with precision seemed to have been particularly important with this storm. Could you explain why?
The Irrawaddy Delta is very, very low-lying. What happens with a cyclone that comes up and makes that curve to the right, it's almost as if it were coming into Tampa Bay. It's low-lying to begin with, and it's low-lying far inland, so you basically have a storm surge. Just to the right of the eye of the storm is where the worst storm surge is, where the highest waters are. With the combination of the low-lying river delta and this massive push of water with nothing to stop it, the flooding damage is evident quite a ways inland.

How does Burma's early-warning system compare with those of other countries in the region, such as Bangladesh, which supposedly put a good one in place since it's been hit so often with devastating storms?
I'm not aware of how many governments in the area heeded the warning, but this was out on the basic AP, UPI newswires days in advance. Typically, within 72 hours, you want to be in evacuation mode for a major typhoon like this. Bangladesh is known to have a very good early-warning system. India also has a very adequate system. Had this exact same system struck either one of those countries, there would have been much more time to prepare. But those countries are further developed in terms of infrastructure and warning services. You have to have infrastructure to get information like this out--whether it's through news agencies, inter- or intra-country newswires, the Web--but it's pretty much the media outlets. And that's why it's so unsettling in Myanmar, because this was a global news story. You would think the media there would have at least had a high-level notice this was coming.

Would you consider this cyclone "normal" for this time of year? Or was it exceptionally strong?
It was a stronger than average cyclone for this time of year. But that can happen. It's not out of the realm of possibility that you can have a supertyphoon like this. For this particular time of the year, no, it was above average in strength.

What about it hitting Burma rather than other areas on the coast of the Indian Ocean? Is it unusual for storms of this magnitude to hit there?
It is not unheard of, but it's not a track that happens frequently. They do see their share of landfall in typhoons there, but this particular one is not something that we would expect to see on the track it took last Friday.

How does this cyclone stand with any weather trends in the Indian Ocean that you've been able to track?
There is some evidence that there's an increase in global tropical activity, but it's just so anecdotal right now. There is definitely a scientific correlation between warmer than average sea surface temperatures, lack of winds at high levels, and increased hurricane or typhoon activity. We do know that exists. But to what extent that had an effect on this event, I don't think there's any strong scientific correlation, not in that part of the world. As much of a tragedy as this is, it is extremely anecdotal. There's no correlation between this particular storm and a global or climate change that's in effect. There's just not enough scientific data to support that.

Should there have been lessons learned from the tsunami on this that would have helped? Have things changed at all since then?
I would have to go back to high level and the early-warning systems, and how the public is being protected by their government agencies with regard to life and property. With the National Weather Service here in the United States, that is their sole mission, that is the sole reason they exist—the protection of life and property. One must question the effectiveness of those governments to be able to protect life and property, and the early-warning system is part of that, the technology and infrastructure for disseminating news and information like this. Clearly, this was not enough.