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Winds of up to 300 kilometres per hour tore through the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu over the weekend, hitting the heavily populated capital of Port Vila on Saturday morning. Aid agencies say Cyclone Pam could be one of the worst disasters ever to hit the region, the BBC reports. The death toll currently stands at eight and is expected to rise as rescuers reach the more remote islands.

Speaking at a disaster preparedness conference in Japan, Vanuatu's President Baldwin Lonsdale said he thought climate change was contributing to the rise in extreme weather. With aid finally reaching the storm-stricken nation, Carbon Brief looks at how climate change is altering how often this part of the world bears the brunt of such a destructive force.  Winds of up to 300 kilometres per hour tore through the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu over the weekend, hitting the heavily populated capital of Port Vila on Saturday morning. Aid agencies say Cyclone Pam could be one of the worst disasters ever to hit the region, the BBC reports. The death toll currently stands at eight and is expected to rise as rescuers reach the more remote islands. Speaking at a disaster preparedness conference in Japan, Vanuatu's President Baldwin Lonsdale said he thought climate change was contributing to the rise in extreme weather. With aid finally reaching the storm-stricken nation, Carbon Brief looks at how climate change is altering how often this part of the world bears the brunt of such a destructive force. Wind speed in Cyclone Pam at 1900 GMT on 16th March 2015. Winds of more than 200 km per hour (red) are still being recorded as the cyclone continues its path from Vanuatu down the east coast of New Zealand. Images courtesy of Cameron Beccario via earth.nullschool.net

Storm severity

A cyclone is a tropical storm. Tropical storms are given different names depending on which ocean they form in. They are called hurricanes in the north Atlantic and northeast Pacific, typhoons in the northwest Pacific, and cyclones in the Indian Ocean. Vanuatu frequently experiences cyclones. The cyclone season runs from December to April when the weather in the region is hot and wet. Tropical storms derive energy from the warmth of the ocean and convert it into wind strength. While strong storms aren't unusual for the region, Cyclone Pam was exceptional. Prof Kevin Trenberth, expert in climate change and extreme weather at the US National Centre for Atmospheric Research, tells Carbon Brief: "In the large area around Vanuatu the sea surface temperatures were one to two degrees Celsius above normal … So the atmosphere all around there has some 10 to 20% more moisture in it than a comparable storm in the 1970s would have had."

Sea surface temperature anomaly for 16th March 2015, compared to 1981-2011 daily average. Blue is lower than average, red is higher. Images courtesy of Cameron Beccario via earth.nullschool.net


Warmer-than-average ocean temperatures in the region undoubtedly increased Cyclone Pam's size and strength. The force exerted on buildings and structures when cyclones make landfall increases disproportionately with wind speed. Some, but not all, of the extra warming can be pinned on human activity, Trenberth adds. Much of it is a result of a weak El Nino event in the Pacific Ocean. He says: "[A]bout 0.6 degrees Celsius can be blamed on human-induced global warming and that means over one degree is "natural" and associated with a weak El Nino." As well as climbing temperatures creating stronger winds, rising sea levels mean that when storm surges hit, the flooding impact is likely to be higher. A study published today suggests sea level rise could cause at least 84 to 139 extra deaths per year from cyclone-related coastal flooding in the United States by 2100, for example. That's without taking into account any changes in population or building of flood defences. Leaders of low-lying Pacific island nations have repeatedly called for action on climate change in recent years, reports the Washington Post.

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