Land in the path of nature’s wrath

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Sunday, November 10, 2013

THE Philippines earns yet another title: having weathered through the world’s worst cyclone that made landfall in history.

Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) was way above Category 5 when it first hit land Friday dawn at Guian, Leyte, except that, there is no Category 6. It was packing power that meteorologists have never yet encountered and driving weather devices to shoot up the ceiling, at least those that have not blown away.

“The Ring of Fire” – that is how scientists call the area in the basin of the Pacific Ocean where a large number of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur. Unfortunately, the Philippines – a country with 7,107 islands – is located in this rim sometimes called the circum-Pacific seismic belt.

About 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes and 81 percent of the world’s largest earthquakes occur along the Ring of Fire. The recent earthquake that hit Bohol is a proof of it. In the morning of October 15, 2013, a destructive earthquake shook the island noted for its Chocolate Hills and endangered tarsier.

The earthquake was recorded at a magnitude of 7.2, which has an energy “equivalent to 32 Hiroshima bombs.” The Little Boy atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945 packed power equal to 20,000 tons of TNT.

But the worst earthquake to hit the country happened on July 16, 1990. A 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck the densely populated island of Luzon, which killed an estimated 1,621 people with most of the fatalities came from Central Luzon and the Cordillera region.

Baguio City, one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, was among the areas hardest hit. It caused 28 collapsed buildings, including hotels, factories, government and university buildings, as well as many private homes and establishments. Kennon Road, the main vehicular route to Baguio, as well as other access routes to the mountain city were shut down due to landslides; it took three days before enough landslide debris was cleared to allow access by road to the stricken city.

According to scientists, the Ring of Fire has 452 volcanoes and is home to over 75 percent of the world’s active and dormant volcanoes. The Philippines, for instance, has around 200 volcanoes scattered all over the archipelago. Fortunately, only 21 are considered active.

A volcano is considered active if it has erupted sometime within the last 600 years. If a volcano has not erupted in 600 years, it is regarded as inactive (dormant). There are also volcanoes which are considered extinct.

The active volcanoes in the country, according to Philvocs, are Pinatubo in Zambales; Mayon in Legazpi City; Taal in Talisay, Batangas; Canlaon in Negros Oriental; Bulusan in Sorsogon; Smith, Didicas, Babuyan Claro and Camiguin de Babuyanes, all in Babuyan Island Group; Cagua in Cagayan; Banahaw in Laguna/Quezon; Iriga in Camarines Sur; Biliran in Biliran; and Iraya in Batanes.

In Mindanao, the active volcanoes are: Ragang and Matutum, both in Cotabato; Hibok-Hibok in Mambajao, Camiguin; Calayo in Valencia, Bukidnon; Bud Dajo on Jolo Island; Musuan in Bukidnon; and Makaturing in Lanao.

“Like ghost and monsters, volcanoes can be scary when they erupt. They rumble, shake and spit out fire, steam, ashes, and rocks. But unlike ghosts and monsters, volcanoes are of this world. As such, they can be studied and understood,” commented the late Raymundo S. Punongbayan, when he was still alive and was heading the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Philvocs).

Take the case of Mount Pinatubo; the last time it erupted was about 450 years ago. Geography.about.com reported: “In June 1991, the second largest volcanic eruption of the twentieth century took place on the island of Luzon in the Philippines, 90 kilometers northwest of the capital city Manila. Up to 800 people were killed and 100,000 became homeless following the Mount Pinatubo eruption, which climaxed with nine hours of eruption on June 15, 1991. On June 15, millions of tons of sulfur dioxide were discharged into the atmosphere, resulting in a decrease in the temperature worldwide over the next few years.”

The Philippines is home to some of the most beautiful volcanoes. Mount Mayon in Albay is world famous for its near-perfect cone. However, it has erupted almost 50 times. The most violent and destructive eruption happened in 1814; its ash and mudflows buried villages and towns around it.

A typhoon is a mature tropical cyclone that develops in the northwestern part of the Pacific Ocean between 180° and 100°E. Again, the Philippines is located in this region which, according to the US National Hurricane Center, is referred to as the northwest Pacific basin.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, shares this information: “The majority of storms form between June and November whilst tropical cyclone formation is at a minimum between December and May. On average, the northwestern Pacific features the most numerous and intense tropical cyclones globally. The Philippines receive a brunt of the landfalls, with China and Japan being impacted slightly less.”

“Each year, about 20 tropical cyclones enter our country,” says Rene Paciente, chief of the weather forecasting and warming system of Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa). Fortunately, only 6 to 9 of these tropical cyclones make landfall.

This year, 20 tropical cyclones have already entered the country’s area of responsibility. December is still two months to go and the worst typhoon is yet to come. It must be recalled that in the last two years, the worst typhoon happened on the last month of the year.

Typhoon “Sendong” hit the northern part of Mindanao on December 16, 2011, killing at least 1,080 people. A year later, on December 2, Typhoon “Pablo” smashed into the main southern island of Mindanao. Rarely hit by storms, the region suffered about 1,900 people dead or missing.

The International Disaster Database, maintained by the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, reported the country lost US$8.809 billion, roughly P378 billion in damages due to natural disasters from 1900 to 2013.

These natural disasters are bound to happen again and again – and may become worse each year due to global climate change. In fact, it is already taking its toll. The Philippines has been identified as the world’s third most vulnerable country to extreme weather events and sea level rise. Sixteen of its provinces are among the top 50 most vulnerable regions in Southeast Asia, according to Hotspots!: Mapping Climate Change Vulnerability in Southeast Asia.

A World Bank report said that in a 4ºC world, sea level around the East Asia and the Pacific region is likely to exceed 50 centimeters above present levels by 2060, and 100 centimeters by 2090, “with Manila being especially vulnerable.”

“Climate change is expected to lead to more intense typhoons, whose storm surges will be superimposed on higher sea levels,” notes Getting a Grip on Climate Change in the Philippines. “In the Philippines, storm surges are projected to affect about 14 percent of the total population and 42 percent of the coastal population.”

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