Why Does the Philippines Suffer from Typhoons?

As soon as the month of June begins to draw to a close and students start to head back to school, there begins a refrain that’s familiar to almost every Filipino. You turn on your television to the nearest news station and watch an anchor in a suit point at some animations on a green screen. “Tropical depression entering the Philippine Area of Responsibility,” they say, “likely to strengthen into a typhoon in the coming days.”

Anyone living in the Philippines for any span of time will have experienced a typhoon at least once. These huge storms can shut down schools, offices, and even government services depending on intensity. But what exactly is a typhoon?

According to the National Geographic, a typhoon is any storm with winds faster than 74 miles or 119 kilometers per hour. The only thing that makes a typhoon different from a hurricane or cyclone is location; typhoons are storms that occur in the western Pacific Ocean, while hurricanes are in the Atlantic and eastern Pacific, and cyclones are in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean.

This explainer published by Rappler discusses in depth how typhoons are formed, but basically the warm air and water in the equator help speed up evaporation, allowing for a faster accumulation of precipitation. As more and more warm air and water vapor rises, and cool air starts to sink, that energy starts to speed up the wind, which after a certain speed and level of precipitation combine into what we call tropical cyclones.

The spiral pattern we see in snapshots of storms is caused by the Coriolis Effect, which is the spiral movement of winds helped along by the rotation and revolution of the Earth. Depending on certain conditions, the tropical cyclone will accumulate more and more wind energy and precipitation, and can eventually become a typhoon or super typhoon.

Not all storms are created equal, and in recent years The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) has updated its public storm signal warning system. Tropical depressions, with winds up to a maximum of 61 km/h, are classified as Signal 1; tropical storms, from 62-118 km/h, are Signal 2; typhoons are 118-220 km/h and classified as Signal 3, and super typhoons have sustained winds faster than 220 km/h and are classified as Signal 4.

Impacts of storms in the Philippines can vary according to intensity, as this post by the Official Gazette of the Philippine government outlines. For Signal 1 storms, twigs and branches of small trees may be broken off, houses with roofs of very light materials may experience some damage, but overall only very light or no damage may be sustained in the affected areas. Signal 2 storms may tilt some big trees, affect crops, and cause damage to houses made of light materials; overall damage may be light to moderate.

Signal 3 storms may severely damage houses of light materials, disrupt electrical power and communication services, and cause moderate to heavy damage. Signal 4, or super typhoons, can cause almost total damage to structures built from light materials, complete roof failure on man buildings, severe disruption to electrical power distribution and communication, and be potentially extremely destructive or catastrophic.

In order to limit the damage and potential loss of life caused by extreme weather events like typhoons, certain precautionary measures are enforced once PAGASA announces the storm signals. For severe storms such as Signal 3 and Signal 4, classes in all levels are suspended, offices may choose to suspend work, communities in coastal areas are encouraged to evacuate, and disaster preparedness and response agencies are coordinating and responding to emergency situations.

We’re no strangers to the damage caused by typhoons. The oldest recorded storm that also ranks in the top 10 deadliest weather events in the country is Typhoon Angela in 1867, while the deadliest typhoon in Philippine history was Haiphong in 1881 which claimed 20,000 lives almost 150 years ago. This is followed by Typhoon Yolanda in 2013, and Typhoon Uring in 1991.

As discussed by the Asian Disaster Reduction Center (ADRC), the country is battered by an average of 20 typhoons a year, with five typhoons being destructive, and that number is only climbing. But why do we encounter so many storms? It’s a simple matter of geography.

Due to its location along the typhoon belt and with the open ocean of the Pacific to the east, the Philippines experiences some of the highest number of typhoons in a year. Our position over the equator and the warm waters surrounding us contribute to the frequency of storms that enter the Philippine Area of Responsibility (PAR).

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be expanding our coverage on the history and impact of storms in the Philippines, so keep an eye out for that! In the meantime, you can have a flick through some of our other travel posts on Daydreaming in Paradise here.