Wednesday, February 2, 2011

When a cyclone blocks your shadow...

Today is Groundhog’s Day, and as a result, if Americans are asking any questions about the weather, it’s all focused on the predictions of a little marmot guarded by men in tall hats. Will Punxsutawney Phil see his shadow?  If he does, we have six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t (as was concluded for 2011) …well, we still have six more weeks of winter. After all, six weeks from now is the middle of March, and Minnesota can still get snow in May.

Since snow is inevitable anyway, perhaps Phil should have focused his forecasting powers on the world’s oceans, particularly the cyclone that is currently hammering the northeast coast of Australia. Stronger than Hurricane Katrina and being referred to as the“largest cyclone in the nation’s history,” Tropical Cyclone Yasi spit out winds over 180 mph and was categorized as a Level 5 storm (maximum rating) when it impacted the coast early this morning (Feb 2). As it traveled inland, it was eventually downgraded to a Level 3, but more than 10,000 people remain in evacuation centers. Cairns, a city well-known to SIL personnel especially those serving in PNG, was directly in the path of the storm, but according to reports, it has come through without too much devastation. At this point, there are no known deaths related to Yasi

Although Papua New Guinea was not in the direct path of the storm, it has been hit hard by tropical cyclones in the past. Take a look at this satellite image taken Feb 1. PNG is pretty close!

Image from NASA’s Terra satellite the morning of February 1

In all this talk about Cyclone Yasi, I became curious. What’s the difference between a cyclone, a hurricane, and a typhoon? Although Google gave me a lot of interesting (and contradictory…) answers, theUS National Weather Service Hurricane Center described it this way:

A tropical cyclone (not to be confused with the tornados in the American Midwest), put very simply, is the name for a low-pressure storm with circular wind activity over warm water.

If the maximum speed of the surface winds is less than 39 mph, then it is called a tropical depression. If it is more than 39 mph, then it is called a tropical storm. Once the wind speed exceeds 74 mph, then it is called different things based upon its place of origin:
  • Hurricane: the North Atlantic Ocean, the Northeast Pacific Ocean east of the dateline, or the South Pacific Ocean east of 160E
  • Typhoon: the Northwest Pacific Ocean west of the dateline
  • Severe tropical cyclone: the Southwest Pacific Ocean west of 160E or Southeast Indian Ocean east of 90E
  • Severe cyclonic storm: the North Indian Ocean
  • Tropical cyclone: the Southwest Indian Ocean
Under this definition, Yasi is a “severe tropical cyclone.” Storms typically begin receiving names once they hit the level of a tropical storm. Did you know Papua New Guinea has its own names for storms developing in that region? You can find them here:

Whether they are called cyclones, hurricanes, or simply terrifying, these extremely destructive storms impact every facet of life, including Bible translation. In 1994, translation strategies changed significantly in Papua New Guinea after tidal waves from a tropical cyclone wiped out over a third of the Arop people group. As a result, the translators began working with several coastal languages, eventually including 11 different languages in what is called a "cluster project." You can read more about this project and its story here: It's an amazing example of God bringing unforseen opportunities out of  immense difficulties.

I'm glad we have a God more reliable than Punxsutawney Phil and his shadow.