Monday, November 11, 2013

Putting Haiyan's Storm Surge in a Global Context

Super Typhoon Haiyan generated a catastrophic storm surge that devastated coastal communities in the provinces of Samar and Leyte, in the Eastern Visayas region of the Philippines. As photos and videos stream in from the hardest hit areas, it appears as though the height of this surge may rival the 7.3-meter (24 foot) surge generated by the Typhoon of Samar and Leyte, on October 12, 1897. Until now, the 1897 surge event was the highest official storm surge height in the Philippines and all of East Asia, according to SURGEDAT, a global storm surge data center.

The high-water pattern in the 1897 event was quite different, however, as that storm tracked farther to the north. Therefore in 1897, the highest water marks occurred in eastern Samar, near the community of Hernani. During that storm the highest water marks near Tacloban, the epicenter of Haiyan’s surge, were approximately 4.9 meters (16 feet), near the community of Basey. It therefore appears as though Haiyan’s surge was considerably higher than the 1897 storm surge in northern portion of San Pedro and San Pablo Bay, near Tacloban.

Haiyan may have generated the highest modern-day storm surge level in all of East Asia.

Image: BBC Breaking News/ AFP

In a global context, Haiyan’s storm surge was the highest surge since Hurricane Katrina generated a 8.47-meter (27.8-foot) surge along the Mississippi Coast in the United States, in August, 2005. Haiyan’s surge is also the first surge to exceed 5 meters since Tropical Cyclone Yasi generated a 5.33-meter (17.5-foot) surge at Cardwell, Queensland in Australia, in February, 2011.

The world's largest storm surges have consistently occurred along the Bay of Bengal, particularly in India and Bangladesh. At least three surge events in this region have exceeded 12 meters (39.4 feet), the largest of which was a 13.7-meter (45-foot) storm tide that struck Bangladesh in 1876 (Dube et al. 1997). Although Haiyan's surge was likely smaller than these world record holders, images and videos from Tacloban depict a city that has been obliterated by a severe catastrophe.

 Haiyan generated the highest global storm surge level since Hurricane Katrina in August, 2005.
Image: NOAA (see:

Unfortunately, Haiyan’s surge inflicted many fatalities. Various media sources indicate that 10,000 people may have died in the city of Tacloban alone. By comparison, Hurricane Katrina killed 1,833 people (McTaggart-Cowan et al. 2008), many of whom drowned in the storm surge.

However, we cannot say that Haiyan’s surge is the most deadly since Katrina, because Tropical Cyclone Nargis generated an extremely dangerous storm surge in Myanmar during May, 2008. Although Nargis’ peak storm surge was only approximately 4.5 meters (Fritz et al. 2011), approximately half the height of Katrina's surge, Nargis flooded a dense population that was largely unprepared. This storm inflicted an extraordinary number of fatalities, as 146,000 people died in this storm (Fritz et al. 2011), many of whom drowned in the storm surge. It is likely that Haiyan has generated the deadliest storm surge since Nargis.

Haiyan's surge may be deadliest since Tropical Cyclone Nargis killed 146,000 in Myanmar in 2008.

The scale of Haiyan's impact be similar in some ways to the 2011 Japan Tsunami, which killed approximately 15,000 people and left 8,000 people still missing as of June, 2011 (Jaffe et al. 2011). Damage and destruction in the worst-hit areas looks comparable, as entire neighborhoods have been completely swept away. Despite the horrific scenes coming out of the Philippines, the scale of this catastrophe is still smaller than the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami, which inundated coastlines from East Asia to Africa and killed approximately 228,000 people (United States Geologic Survey 2008).


Dube, S.K., A.D. Rao, P.C. Sinha, T.S. Murty, N. Bahulayan, 1997: Storm surge in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea: The problem and its prediction. Mausam, 48, 283-304.

Fritz, H.E., C. Blount, S. Thwin, M.K. Thu, and N. Chan, 2010b: Cyclone Nargis Storm Surge Flooding in Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady River Delta. Published in Charabi, Y., Indian Ocean Tropical Cyclones and Climate Change. Published by Springer Science and Business Media.

Jaffe, B., B. Richmond, and H. Gibbons, 2011: International Team Studies Tsunami Deposits in Japan to Improve Understanding and Mitigation of Tsunami Hazards. Sound Waves, Coastal and Marine Research News from Across the USGS. Published by the United States Geologic Survey. Available on the Web at:

McTaggart-Cowan R., G.D. Deane, L.F. Bosart, C.A. Davis, T.J. Galarneau, Jr., 2008: Climatology of tropical cyclogenesis in the North Atlantic (1948-2004). Monthly Weather Review, 136, 1284-1304.

United States Geological Survey, 2008: Largest and Deadliest Earthquakes by Year, updated July 16, 2008. Published on the Web at:

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