News this Week

Science  25 Apr 2014:
Vol. 344, Issue 6182, pp. 346
  1. Around the World

    1 - Brussels
    Sentinel-1A Sends First Pics
    2 - Malabo
    Polio Spreads Farther Into Central Africa
    3 - Beijing
    China's Soil Woes in Sharper Focus
    4 - Richmond
    Climate Scientist Prevails in Virginia High Court
    5 - Strasbourg, France
    E.U. Parliament Clears Beefed-Up Industry Partnerships

    Brussels

    Sentinel-1A Sends First Pics

    CREDIT: ESA

    The European Space Agency's (ESA's) Sentinel-1A satellite, launched on 3 April, has sent home its first radar images of Earth, including this image of Brussels taken on 12 April. It shows the dense city center in white, vegetation in green, and waterways in black. Sentinel-1A uses advanced radar technology to "see" in the dark or through obstacles such as clouds and rain. It can capture images that can be used for urban planning and to monitor glaciers, manage water resources, or devise emergency response.

    The mission is the first in a new family of satellite missions that will form part of the Copernicus environmental monitoring program, an €8.4 billion joint initiative of the European Commission and ESA. Copernicus will pull together data from the environmental satellites as well as ground-based and airborne stations to study the overall health of the planet.

    Malabo

    Polio Spreads Farther Into Central Africa

    The polio outbreak in Cameroon detected last October is spreading. As of last week, three cases were reported in neighboring Equatorial Guinea, which was polio-free for 15 years. The situation is "very alarming," says Bruce Aylward, who heads the global initiative to eradicate polio. The Cameroon virus is closely related to one last seen in Chad in 2011, which suggests it has been circulating undetected in the region for several years due to poor surveillance and low immunization rates. In Equatorial Guinea, the routine immunization rate is about 40%.

    Experts are on high alert to detect further spread to nearby countries—particularly Nigeria, which has been making impressive gains in quashing the virus, and the war-torn Central African Republic, where mounting an emergency response would be extremely challenging.

    Beijing

    China's Soil Woes in Sharper Focus

    The Chinese government has lifted the veil a bit on a nationwide soil survey that it had classified as a state secret (Science, 28 March, p. 1415). The environment ministry posted a bulletin to its website on 17 April divulging that 16% of sites tested during the 5-year survey are polluted. The report concludes that China's overall soil environment is "not optimistic."

    Especially worrying to researchers is that pollution is most widespread on agricultural lands, where 19% of sites are tainted. Major contaminants, the bulletin noted, are heavy metals such as cadmium, mercury, arsenic, and lead. The report blames mining and industrial waste for fouling croplands. However, much of the data from the survey—which ran from 2005 to 2010—remains under lock and key. "The transparency is not enough," says Chen Ruishan, a geologist at Hohai University in Nanjing.

    China's State Council has ordered the environment ministry to formulate a plan for curtailing future soil pollution and for remediating contaminated land, the bulletin states. But "we need to know about the spatial distribution" of the soil pollution to devise a remediation strategy, Chen says—and that kind of map has not been released to the public.

    Richmond

    Climate Scientist Prevails in Virginia High Court

    The Virginia Supreme Court has ruled in favor of climatologist Michael Mann in a fight over whether the former University of Virginia (UVA) climatologist must turn over e-mails requested by means of a 2011 state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The court upheld a lower court ruling that UVA did not have to hand over the e-mails to the Energy & Environment Legal Institute (formerly the American Tradition Institute). It ruled that the e-mails, which touched on scientific data and publications, essentially belonged to Mann and were not public property.

    "It is the end of this episode, and a win in this battle," says Mann, now at Pennsylvania State University, University Park. He says the decision sets an important precedent for "many similar FOIA-based bad faith attacks on climate scientists in the months and years ahead in other states." The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, however, says the ruling provides overly broad protections for universities seeking to withhold e-mails from reporters and the public.

    Strasbourg, France

    E.U. Parliament Clears Beefed-Up Industry Partnerships

    The European Parliament has endorsed a €9 billion spending package for big research partnerships with industry. In several votes held last week in Strasbourg, France, the Parliament approved the creation or continuation of six Joint Technology Initiatives (JTIs), part of the so-called Innovation Investment Package announced last year (http://scim.ag/JTIEU). JTIs are large programs that support industry research in areas considered complex, slow, or risky—such as the development of clean aircraft or novel medicines. Businesses say they will match public funds in kind, to reach about €17 billion for all six JTIs over the next 7 years.

    The European Union's contribution will come from the budget for Horizon 2020, the bloc's research funding program for 2014 to 2020. At the request of member states, industry partnerships were protected from cuts that affected the rest of Horizon 2020's budget during planning negotiations. That protection prompted criticism from universities, who argue that academic grants lost out to industry research.

    Member states are expected to formally approve the decisions before the programs are launched in July.

  2. Random Sample

    Saturn's New Friend

    CREDIT: NASA/JPL-CALTECH/SPACE SCIENCE INSTITUTE

    As viewed by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, "Peggy" is just an unassuming bright dot right at the edge of Saturn's outermost ring (the A ring). But in fact, Cassini may have observed the birth of a brand-new moon around the ringed planet, scientists reported online in the journal Icarus last week. Cassini snapped the picture on 15 April 2013, documenting a bright arc and an unusual distension of the ring that scientists think are caused by the gravitational effects of the object. Although the moon itself may not hold together long, witnessing its birth could help better explain the formation of Saturn's other icy moons within long-vanished, even more massive rings. NASA scientists plan to move Cassini's orbit closer to the outer edge of the A ring in 2016 to get a better look at Peggy.

    They Said It

    "[B]anishing this research from Boston, the world's densest concentration of medical brainpower, would impede scientists' ability to learn from one another."

    —Editorial in The Boston Globe on 13 April reacting to a proposed city ordinance to ban biosafety level 4 research at Boston University's National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories.

  3. Newsmakers

    Science Wins Awards for Archaeology, Polio Stories

    Science's immersive multimedia story "The Thousand-Year Graveyard" by Ann Gibbons has won the annual Gene S. Stuart Award for archaeology writing from the Society for American Archaeology. The story's slideshows, videos, and text (http://scim.ag/thouyear) take readers to a graveyard in Tuscany as archaeologists uncover a tortured history of death and disease. The online treatment of the 13 December 2013 story was created by a six-person team.

    Gibbons CREDIT: © DAVIDSHARPE.COM
    Roberts CREDIT: © DAVIDSHARPE.COM

    And for her 4 October 2013 story on polio eradication in northern Nigeria (http://scim.ag/polioerad), Science Deputy News Editor Leslie Roberts received a 2013 Award for Excellence in Health Care Journalism from the Association of Health Care Journalists. To learn about the "art" of eradicating polio, Roberts traveled through the African nation with a former Nigerian health minister, exploring the roles of money, tradition, education, and violence in efforts to stamp out the disease.

  4. Tanks for the Batteries

    1. Robert F. Service

    The need to store energy from wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources could spark a revival of a dormant battery technology.

    Bright idea.

    Yi Cui demonstrates a prototype of a flow battery in his lab at Stanford University.

    CREDIT: MATT BEARDSLEY/SLAC NATIONAL ACCELERATOR LABORATORY

    Every large-scale energy source comes with a downside. For fossil fuels, it's carbon emissions; for nuclear power, it's radioactive waste; for renewables, it's intermittency, the inability to produce power when the sun isn't shining and the wind is still. Given society's pressing need to switch from fossil to renewable fuels to prevent catastrophic climate change, intermittency is a headache fast becoming a migraine. Many experts worry that the steadily climbing share of electricity supplied by renewables will eventually make portions of the electric grid unstable. "The clock is ticking," says Graham Fisher, chief scientist of SunEdison in St. Peters, Missouri, one of the largest providers of solar power in the United States.

    Researchers working on the cutting edge of battery technology are increasingly confident that they have the means to steady the grid and smooth the path to renewables. They're updating a 130-year-old technology called flow batteries, aiming to create versions that can bank massive amounts of electricity from renewables when it's not needed and then feed it back into the grid during times of heavy demand.

    Unlike traditional batteries, which pack their chemical power supply and the electrodes needed to tap it into one package, flow batteries separate those two jobs, storing energy in tanks of liquid electrolyte that can be scaled up to industrial dimensions. That strategy could help them avoid an unwelcome trade-off: Normal batteries are good at producing either large amounts of power for short periods or small amounts of power for days. "The key challenge is to find a battery system that can span these two," says John Lemmon, a program director at the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy in Washington, D.C. Because the power delivered and the amount of energy stored can be optimized separately, flow batteries are "very promising," he says.

    Now, many battery researchers are taking a second look. "There are new ideas out there that have the potential to be game changing," says Michael Aziz, a flow battery expert at Harvard University. Researchers are exploring dozens of different battery chemistries, hoping to find one that produces large amounts of power for sustained periods while being dirt-cheap, safe, and robust enough to last for decades. "It's still too early to say one system will get past all the hurdles," adds Yet-Ming Chiang, a materials scientist and battery expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "Right now it's about getting multiple shots on goal."

    A huge niche

    Developed in the 1970s, modern flow batteries did not catch on at the time because they were expensive and the market was nonexistent. But the push to renewables could change the calculus. Thirty-one U.S. states, for example, now have so-called renewable portfolio standards that require their energy mix to include as much as 40% renewables in the near future. The vagaries of sun and wind will create peaks and valleys of renewable generation, which will have to be smoothed out to provide sustained, reliable power. "Most people believe that when renewables make up 15% to 20% of [electricity generating] capacity, the intermittency issue will become a problem," Fisher says.

    Not everybody agrees with Fisher's numbers, and there are alternatives to energy storage for coping with the fluctuating power from renewables—for example by shuttling power between different regions of the grid. But many energy researchers see storage as key. Last fall, for example, California lawmakers passed a mandate to add 200 megawatts (MW) of storage capacity by the end of this year and 1325 MW by 2020. "California's program will serve as a big kickstart and experimentation enabler," wrote Devi Glick, an energy policy expert at the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) in Snowmass, Colorado, in a recent RMI blog post. According to recent analyses by a pair of market research firms, the global demand for installing grid storage could reach more than $100 billion annually by 2020.

    Electrifying.

    Vanadium flow batteries generate current from tanks of liquid electrolytes; recharging them runs the same reactions in reverse.

    CREDIT: PACIFIC NORTHWEST NATIONAL LABORATORY

    Today, many communities store electricity by using it to pump water to hilltop reservoirs, and then letting the water run back down through turbines when the power is needed. Such pumped hydro setups typically store power for about $100 per kilowatt-hour of capacity, now the cheapest option. Other companies and communities use conventional lead-acid, lithium-ion, and sodium-sulfur batteries for smaller scale energy storage (see figure). But not all communities have the topography and water needed for pumped hydro, and conventional batteries are prone to fires and typically have trouble producing large power loads for many hours or days at a time.

    That's where flow batteries could find their niche. They look nothing like sleek lithium-ion batteries or even cumbersome lead-acid car batteries. Instead, an electrode assembly, known as a stack, sits in the middle of the device, and charged liquid electrolytes are pumped from external tanks through the stack. In most designs, the positively charged electrode strips electrons from the electrolyte and sends them through an external circuit. This process produces positively charged ions, which flow through a specialized membrane to a second electrolyte on the other side, where they meet up with the electrons and complete the circuit (see figure). To charge the battery, the fluids are simply pumped in reverse while electricity fed into the stack replenishes the energetic charges to the initial solution.

    Because the jobs of energy storage and extraction are separated, it's easy to scale up storage by simply building bigger tanks of electrolytes. Likewise, the power produced by the battery can be scaled up by adding more electrode assemblies to the stack. This division of labor also makes flow batteries generally safer and less prone to overheating, because the electrodes can take up electrons (a reaction that produces heat) only when the electrolytes are pumped through the stack.

    But flow batteries tend to have low energy density, so they have to be large. Whereas state-of-the-art lithium-ion batteries have an energy density (known as specific energy) of 128 watt-hours per kilogram (Wh/kg), in the most common flow batteries that number ranges from 20 to 50 Wh/kg. Most modular units now under development range in size from refrigerators to railcars. A flow battery in Osaka, Japan, that's capable of storing a megawatt of power generated by 28 concentrated solar panels is larger than a dozen rail cars and was backed by tens of millions of dollars by the national and regional governments. That's too expensive for most applications today. So flow battery researchers are hunting for electrolytes, membranes, and designs that could lower costs and increase energy density.

    Value-added vanadium

    For decades, the leading class of flow batteries has been a group known as aqueous redox flow batteries, which rely on water-based electrolytes to ferry charges. The most advanced type, vanadium flow batteries, came on the scene in the mid-1980s. Vanadium's strong suit is that its ions are stable with several different amounts of charge. In one common setup, during discharge V2+ ions give up electrons at one electrode to become V3+. Those electrons then move through an external circuit and are returned to a counter electrode where they convert V5+ ions to V4+. The vanadium ions swim in a water-based electrolyte spiked with dilute sulfuric acid. Protons in this electrolyte pass through a proton-conducting polymer membrane to balance the charges (see figure).

    Several vanadium redox flow batteries (VRBs) are already on the market, and more are on the way. Sumitomo Electric Industries Ltd., for example, announced last year that it's planning to build one of the biggest, a 60-megawatt-hour VRB for Hokkaido Electric Power Co. in Japan. According to Japanese news reports, the single battery will help the utility company smooth out its power delivery enough to increase its use of solar power by 10%.

    But vanadium is expensive. Building a battery capable of generating 1 kilowatt-hour of electricity—about enough to power one 100-watt light bulb for a night—costs $80 for the vanadium alone. Adding the tanks, pumps, and electrode assemblies brings the typical price of a VRB to about $700 to $800 for each kilowatt-hour of capacity, far above the typical cost for pumped water storage, about $100 per kilowatt-hour. Another challenge is that V5+ ions are highly caustic, so manufacturers must use a durable but expensive polymer film called Nafion as the proton-conducting membrane.

    Recent advances appear likely to cut VRB prices. In March 2011, for example, researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, Washington, developed a new sulfate-and-chloride-based electrolyte that can hold 70% more vanadium ions, enabling a smaller—and cheaper—battery to deliver the same amount of energy. The setup also can run at higher temperatures, reducing the need for cooling. That technology has already been licensed to three companies, which are getting close to installing units in the field, according to Imre Gyuk, program manager for energy storage research at the DOE's Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability in Washington, D.C.

    In a separate advance, the PNNL team removed the V4+ and V5+ ions from one side of the reaction and replaced them with iron ions that cycle between Fe2+ and Fe3+. Because the iron ions are far less corrosive than vanadium ions, the PNNL team could also replace the expensive membrane with a cheap plastic used in wastewater treatment plants. The lower cost could make V-Fe flow batteries ideal for applications that require multiple electrodes and membrane assemblies to store large amounts of power and deliver it quickly, as is often needed to match electricity supply with demand, says Wei Wang, a materials scientist who leads the PNNL group.

    Michael Perry, a chemical engineer with United Technologies Research Center in East Hartford, Connecticut, and colleagues focused on the electrodes instead. At a meeting of the Materials Research Society meeting in Boston in December 2013, they reported reengineering the stack to have an interdigitated electrode: a setup that looks like alternating fingers on two hands clasped together. The design is common in fuel cells, which generate electricity from hydrogen or other fuels. The group has also improved the conductivity of the polymer membranes. Perry estimates that the changes have slashed the cost of the electrode stack by 83%. "We think we're now in the $300 to $350 kWh range" for the entire setup, Perry says.

    Workhorses.

    Flow batteries deliver more power for longer periods than most other storage technologies can.

    CREDIT: ADAPTED FROM DOE/EPRI 2013 ELECTRICITY STORAGE HANDBOOK IN COLLABORATION WITH NRECA

    Savings galore

    Other researchers are reconfiguring the entire battery to reduce costs. Last year, for example, Yi Cui and colleagues at Stanford University in California came up with a "semisolid" flow battery that removes the need for a membrane altogether, usually the most expensive part of the electrode stack. To do so, they made a hybrid battery that's part flow and part conventional battery. The setup has just a single tank of electrolyte liquid, which contains lithium-sulfur compounds such as Li2S8. These interact with an electrode made of lithium metal that's covered with a thin coating to prevent it from undergoing unwanted side reactions. When discharging, the lithium metal gives up electrons and sheds lithium ions through the coating into the electrolyte. Those ions, along with electrons that have passed through an external circuit, convert the Li2S8 into Li2S4. Li2S8 reforms upon charging, and the extra lithium ions are redeposited on the metal electrode. In the May 2013 issue of Energy & Environmental Science, Cui and his colleagues reported that their lab-scale prototype generated as much as 170 watt-hours per kilogram and 190 watt-hours per liter, more than three times the output of conventional redox flow batteries. The hybrid battery also proved stable for thousands of charge and discharge cycles. And by removing vanadium from the mix, Cui estimates his setup could slash the cost of the raw materials for the battery to half that of VRBs.

    Aziz's team at Harvard recently offered a potentially even cheaper option. They replaced the metal ions with far cheaper organic compounds called quinones, abundant in both plants and petroleum, which consist of at least one ring of carbon atoms, plus a tail of carbons, hydrogens, and oxygens. They have an electronic advantage as well as a cost one, Aziz says. In most flow battery setups, metal ions typically shuttle single electrons at a time. Each quinone molecule, by contrast, can ferry pairs of electrons—potentially giving quinone flow batteries a higher energy density than most metal-based flow batteries. Going organic carries another bonus: getting rid of water. Redox flow batteries have to keep their output voltage low or they run the risk of destroying their electrolyte by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen gas. Organics without water can run at higher voltages and thus produce more power with fewer electrodes in the stack, Gyuk says.

    Quinones readily snag and give up electrons. So several years ago, Aziz began experimenting with batteries using hydrogen-containing quinones, known as hydroquinones, as the charge carriers. After some mediocre results, he and his students teamed up with theoretical chemists at Harvard led by Alán Aspuru-Guzik. Guzik and his colleagues calculated properties of more than 10,000 quinones and hit on a likely top performer, abbreviated AQDSH2—a compound nearly identical to one naturally found in rhubarb.

    Aziz and his students filled one tank of a flow battery with AQDSH2 dissolved in an organic electrolyte. In the other tank they placed bromine liquid, or Br2. During discharge, each hydroquinone gives up two electrons and two protons. The protons crossed through a membrane, where they met up with two bromine atoms and electrons that had passed through an external circuit to make two molecules of HBr. As the team reported in the 9 January issue of Nature, they could recharge the hydroquinones by running the reaction in reverse and feeding in electricity.

    "It's a great new material set," Perry says. And unlike metal-based flow batteries, the organic batteries have the potential to be easily tailored using the standard tools of organic chemistry. But—as with every candidate for flow battery material—they have drawbacks. For starters, the organic electrolytes tend to be viscous, slowing the exchange of electrons at the electrode. And the bromine in Aziz's design is highly caustic.

    Gyuk says overcoming such challenges will spur innovation. Indeed, the field is feverish with ideas and prototypes. "Flow batteries are starting to see a renaissance," Perry says. If so, a renewable-energy Enlightenment could well be close behind.

  5. After the Deluge

    1. Dennis Normile

    Hard data and survivor interviews are helping researchers unravel the science of Supertyphoon Haiyan and its storm surge.

    A shattered community.

    Haiyan is believed to have been the strongest typhoon ever to make landfall.

    CREDIT: AFP/GETTY IMAGES

    TACLOBAN AND DULAG, PHILIPPINES—It was a night Jayde de Veyra will never forget. High winds swirling around his two-story house woke him at about 2 in the morning last 8 November. By 5 a.m. the storm was raging so fiercely, he says, "I couldn't go outside." The wind's whistling hurt the ears; the rain was torrential. After about 2 hours, the winds suddenly died and the rain stopped. De Veyra stepped outside into a dark, eerily calm morning. Neighbors were milling about, checking their houses, asking after others. But then, just as suddenly, the winds started picking up. "People outside started screaming, 'It's coming again, it's coming again.' " De Veyra went back inside, while the storm got even worse than it had been before.

    The description of a lull—the storm's eye—was just what Josh Morgerman hoped for when he struck up a conversation with De Veyra here in Dulag, a town 37 kilometers south of Tacloban. A dedicated storm chaser, Morgerman and two colleagues rode out Supertyphoon Haiyan at the Hotel Alejandro in Tacloban, where they captured dramatic footage of winds whipping away windows, rain pouring through punctured roofs and cascading down stairways, and a storm surge that transformed streets into canals. Clips of their videos were featured on CNN and helped alert the world to the unfolding disaster triggered by what is believed to have been the strongest typhoon to ever make landfall.

    Four months later, on a sunny, early spring day, Morgerman was taking a giant stride beyond chasing Haiyan, known in the Philippines as Yolanda. He was traveling along the storm-scarred coast of Leyte province south of Tacloban, gathering eyewitness accounts and snapping hundreds of GPS-tagged photos of uprooted trees and damaged buildings, all to confirm Haiyan's exact landfall, the eye's dimensions, wind strength, and the depth of surging waters that accounted for most of the deaths. He is one of dozens of scientists, disaster experts, and adventurers working to document the storm and its impact. The goal of this detailed postmortem: to understand what made this typhoon so powerful and its surge so devastating, and to gather clues to how to keep future storms from matching Haiyan's toll, which now runs to more than 6000 dead, 28,000 injured, and 1000 still missing, and over $2 billion in damage.

    Already, the researchers are documenting how a coastline stripped of natural barriers, poorly built homes placed too close to shore, insufficient disaster planning, and a lack of public awareness combined with an unusually ferocious storm to produce a costly tragedy. "We have a long way to go to have a culture of safety and preparedness," says Alfredo Mahar Lagmay, a geologist at the University of the Philippines, Diliman (UPD).

    Out in front

    The Philippines is possibly the most storm-battered country on Earth. At the western edge of the North Pacific, the archipelago "is right along the alleyway of typhoons and right up front," says Cesar Villanoy, a physical oceanographer at UPD. Eight or nine damaging typhoons wallop the country each year, on average.

    But Haiyan was in a class of its own (Science, 29 November 2013, p. 1027). Typhoons draw their energy from the heat in surface waters, and those waters were plenty warm last year along Haiyan's track. Typically typhoon winds stir up deeper, cooler water, curtailing a storm's energy buildup. But over the past 2 decades, unusually steady easterly trade winds have piled warm water into the western Pacific, warming and thickening subsurface waters, forming a larger reservoir of storm-fueling heat. The tropical cyclone heat potential, a measure of this subsurface heat, has increased 10% since the early 1990s in the western Pacific, according to I-I Lin, a specialist in typhoon-ocean interactions at National Taiwan University in Taipei. Haiyan also originated more than 3000 kilometers east of the Philippines, giving it plenty of open ocean to muster strength for its assault on land.

    Haiyan is already recognized as the most intense tropical storm ever at the time of landfall, but some scientists think it has a claim to being the most intense—period. Meteorologists rank tropical storms by their sustained wind speed, wind radius—how far from the storm's center that winds of a given speed are found—and barometric pressure, with a lower pressure usually correlating with faster winds.

    By all three criteria, the reigning champ is 1979's Supertyphoon Tip, which achieved a peak sustained wind speed of 165 knots, a whopping 30-knot wind radius of 1100 kilometers, and a sea-level pressure of 870 millibars. Tip set all these records while meandering around the western North Pacific; it weakened significantly and was no longer a supertyphoon when it swept through Japan, causing widespread flooding and killing 42.

    "It may be time to recognize a new modern-era world record" for storm intensity, argues Mark Lander, a meteorologist at the University of Guam in Mangilao. In a paper presented at an American Meteorological Society conference earlier this month, he noted that the Joint Typhoon Warning Center, operated by the U.S. Navy and Air Force in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, estimated Haiyan's peak sustained wind speed at 170 knots, based on satellite imagery.

    Pacific cyclones are poorly monitored; winds and pressures are mostly estimated from satellite observations. Other recent storms may have rivaled Haiyan, and it might even have been matched by an 1897 typhoon that also devastated Tacloban. In the aftermath of that storm, José María Algué, a Jesuit priest in charge of meteorological observations at the Manila Observatory, led a mission to survey damage and interview survivors. He then wrote a 50-plus page monograph documenting the devastation left by the winds and storm surge, which claimed 1299 lives.

    The surge heights he recorded suggest the 1897 storm "was potentially just as strong" as Haiyan, says Fernando Siringan, a UPD geologist working with Villanoy. "It's sad," adds Gemma Narisma, a climate scientist at the Manila Observatory. "Every time something strikes, there is the notion that we don't get hit this way, and we go back to the archives and show, yep, it has hit before."

    Whatever Haiyan's ranking, it unleashed a devastating storm surge on the coast around Tacloban. Researchers have documented a wall of water that, depending on local topography, was 4 to 7 meters high and ran as far as 2 kilometers inland. "There was almost complete destruction for the first couple hundreds of meters off the coast," says Adam Switzer, a coastal geomorphologist at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Even hundreds of meters inland, people were forced onto the roofs of two-story homes. "There was nowhere else to go," says Switzer, who participated in a post-storm survey. A couple who lives in a modern apartment building in downtown Tacloban told Morgerman of pulling a boy from the surge waters to safety on their second-floor balcony.

    Postmortem for a monster.

    On-the-ground observations underpin this map of Haiyan's track and wind damage, as well as its surge inundation (inset).

    CREDITS: (MAP) JOSH MORGERMAN/ICYCLONE.COM/© 2014 JOSH MORGERMAN; (INSET) PROJECT NOAH, DEPARTMENT OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY, REPUBLIC OF THE PHILIPPINES

    To understand what generated the tsunamilike surge, Villanoy, Switzer, and a reconnaissance team gathered evidence of the timing, height, direction, and extent of inundation. "We think we have the story almost straight," Villanoy says. The stage was set by the unusual trade winds that intensified the storm. They have literally piled up water in the western Pacific, raising sea levels by more than 20 centimeters over the past 20 years.

    The swelling sea combined with quirks of Leyte's geography to devastating effect. Tacloban sits at the top of San Pedro and San Pablo Bay, a small thumb of water jutting northward from Leyte Gulf. Just above Tacloban, the narrow and twisting San Juanico Strait separates Leyte and Samar islands. People living along the bay's north rim told Villanoy's team of a curious phenomenon: As Haiyan approached, the sea retreated far from land. The storm's counterclockwise winds had driven water from the shallow northern end of the bay south, away from Tacloban. When the storm passed, the southerly winds behind the eye pushed the water back north—with a vengeance. The shift in the winds happened quickly enough for the slosh of water returning from the south to amplify the northward surge, much like a boxer winding up for a knock-out punch by drawing his fist back. Full data on casualties are not yet available, but Villanoy says the surge appears to have caused most of the deaths.

    Storm clouds on the horizon

    Few scientists predict that cyclone-prone areas should expect more storms with Haiyan's ferocity as Earth warms. In a report last September, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that no increase in typhoon activity in the western Pacific has been documented and that it has "low confidence" of any increase in storm frequency or intensity in the coming decades. But one trend is crystal clear: Natural disaster casualties and damage are rising.

    Over decades, coconut plantations have supplanted storm-resistant natural mangroves across much of the Philippines. And nationwide, hundreds of thousands of "informal settlers"—the politically correct term for squatters—have built shanty towns along shorelines, often with houses on stilts above tidal flats and on the wrong side of seawalls. There were an estimated 35,000 informal settlers in Tacloban alone.

    The Philippine government warned those in harm's way. As Haiyan was barreling across the Pacific in the first week of November, meteorologists forecast days in advance where and how hard it was likely to hit. A new government program called Project NOAH, for Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards, also predicted storm surge heights throughout the region.

    But the warnings did not work as well as hoped, as researchers have learned in post-storm surveys. Many shoreline residents took refuge in one-story schools and churches that collapsed in the winds or were flooded by the surge. Others ignored the warnings because they were used to typhoons. The storm surge also came on so quickly—in a matter of minutes—that it caught many by surprise. And many residents in the disaster zone reported simply not knowing what a storm surge is. "The impact of disasters is not so dependent on the characteristics of typhoons, it depends on exposures and vulnerabilities," says Narisma, who is also a professor at Ateneo de Manila University.

    In Haiyan's aftermath, the national government declared there could be no rebuilding within 40 meters of the high tide line; local officials hope to convince families to move inland once new housing is built. But these efforts will meet resistance. Worried that they would lose their old spots and unwilling to wait months for the promised housing, many squatters have already rebuilt their homes using storm debris and tarps provided by relief agencies.

    Project NOAH is also helping prepare new maps that will enable local governments to identify evacuation areas. And Lagmay hopes to bring social scientists into Project NOAH to devise ways to encourage citizens to take action on their own during an emergency. "Raising awareness is the first step toward disaster preparedness," he says.

    Morgerman wants to help, too. Since returning from what he calls "the ultimate chase," he has been obsessed with Haiyan. "It was such an intense storm and had such an impact," he says, noting that this is the first time in 4 decades that such a populous city has been hit by such a powerful storm. By trying "to document as carefully as possible what happened," he hopes to ease the impact of the next supertyphoon.

  6. The Cyclone Addict

    1. Dennis Normile

    Storm chaser Josh Morgerman witnessed Supertyphoon Haiyan as it hit Tacloban, and he went back months later to document the storm's track and impact.

    Some of the most revealing data about last year's Supertyphoon Haiyan—the strongest ever known to hit land—came not from a team of Ph.D.s but from an advertising executive named Josh Morgerman, who eagerly puts himself in the path of storms. For Morgerman, who is based in the Los Angeles area, storm chasing is "like an addiction," he says. "Some people need that adrenaline rush."

    Morgerman first pursued a storm when Hurricane Bob slammed New England in 1991. "I followed it by riding the train to Providence, Rhode Island, and carrying paper maps," he says. Now he's equipped with altimeters, barometers, and GPS-equipped iPads, uploading data and images to his iCyclone website (www.icyclone.com) and the tropical storms mail list. He chases storms with two kindred spirits: Mark Thomas, an entrepreneur in Taipei, and James Reynolds, a videographer working out of Hong Kong.

    Up-close and personal.

    Josh Morgerman (inset) getting Haiyan's ferocity on tape.

    CREDITS: JOSH MORGERMAN/ICYCLONE.COM/© 2014 JOSH MORGERMAN; (INSET) RICHARD SETTLE

    Morgerman, 44, ventured to Asia last fall, driven by "the dearth of storm activity in North America." After covering three western Pacific typhoons, he hit the jackpot by landing right in Haiyan's path.

    On 7 November, the team checked into Hotel Alejandro in the heart of Tacloban, a commercial and political hub in the central Philippines. The next day, from the hotel's balconies, they documented winds blowing out windows and ripping off roofs while shards of glass, bits of tin roofing, tree limbs, and other debris flew by. They captured the chaos within the hotel's hallways, where guests and neighbors cowered in the dark. At one point, Morgerman and Thomas helped guests trapped in first-floor rooms escape the fast-rising waters through smashed windows. Afterward, they documented downed power lines, overturned trucks, shacks reduced to splinters, and people poking in the rubble for survivors.

    The team's harrowing videos, shown on CNN, even impress storm survivors. "Every time somebody asks about the storm, I just show them the videos and they have no more questions," says Christian Rey, an emergency medical technician with the Tacloban fire department. And for those not on the scene, the videos provide "immediate and dramatic evidence of the scale of the disaster, and probably increased the speed and amount of aid," says Mark Lander, a meteorologist at University of Guam in Mangilao.

    Morgerman's videos and ground-truthing are making the scientific rounds as well. In a poster at the American Meteorological Society's 31st Conference on Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology earlier this month in San Diego, California, Morgerman presented information distilled from dozens of interviews, hundreds of photos, storm surge estimates, and pressure measurements. His observations will be "invaluable if we are to better understand the satellite data," says Bryan Norcross, a meteorologist and hurricane specialist at The Weather Channel.

    "I'm excited that scientists can take what I've provided—a body of detailed evidence collected on the ground—and take it from there," Morgerman says. His one regret is that he didn't get into Haiyan's eye, which passed south of Tacloban. "It breaks my heart thinking that I could have gotten one of the very few pressure readings ever from the center of a Category 5 storm," he says.

Log in to view full text

Via your Institution

Log in through your institution

Log in through your institution