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date: 20 November 2018

History of Typhoon Science

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. Please check back later for the full article.

A typhoon is a highly organized storm system that develops from initial cyclone eddies and matures by sucking up from the warm tropical oceans large quantities of water vapor, which condenses at higher altitudes. This latent heat of condensation is the prime source of energy supply that strengthens the typhoon as it progresses across the Pacific Ocean. A typhoon differs from other tropical cyclones only on the basis of location. While hurricanes form in the Atlantic Ocean and eastern North Pacific Ocean, typhoons develop in the western North Pacific around the Philippines, Japan, and China.

Because of their violent histories with strong winds and torrential rains and their impact on society, the countries that ring the North Pacific basin—China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan—all always felt the need to produce typhoon forecasts and establish storm warning services. Typhoon accounts in the pre-instrumental era were normally limited to descriptions of damage and incidences, and subsequent studies were hampered by the impossibility of solving the equations governing the weather, as they are distinctly nonlinear. The world’s first typhoon forecast was made by Fr. Federico Faura in 1879, who was a Jesuit scientist from the Manila Observatory. His brethren from the Zikawei Jesuit Observatory, Fr. Marc Dechevrens, first reconstructed the trajectory of a typhoon in 1879, a study that marked the beginning of an era. The Jesuits and other Europeans like William Doberck studied typhoons as a research topic, and their achievements are regarded as products of colonial meteorology.

Between the First and Second World Wars, there were important contributions to typhoon science by meteorologists in the Philippines (Ch. Deppermann, M. Selga, and J. Coronas), China (E. Gherzi), and Japan (T. Okada and Y. Horiguti). The polar front theory developed by the Bergen School in Norway played an important role in creating the large-scale setting for tropical cyclones. Deppermann became the greatest exponent of the polar front theory and air-masses analysis in the Far East and Southeast Asia.

From the end of WWII, it became evident that more effective typhoon forecasts were needed to meet military demands. In Hawaii, a joint Navy and Air Force center for typhoon analysis and forecasting was established in 1959—the Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JTWC). Its goals were to publish annual typhoon summaries and conduct research into tropical cyclone forecasting and detection. Other centers had previously specialized in issuing typhoon warnings and analysis. Thus, research and operational forecasting went hand in hand not only in the American JTWC, but also in China (the Hong Kong Observatory, the Macao Meteorological and Geophysical Bureau), Japan (the Regional Specialized Meteorological Center), and the Philippines (Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Service Administration, PAGASA). These efforts produced more precise scientific knowledge about the formation, structure, and movement of typhoons. In the 1970s and the 1980s, three new tools for research—three-dimensional numerical cloud models, Doppler radar, and geosynchronous satellite imagery—provided a new observational and dynamical perspective on tropical cyclones. The development of modern computing systems has offered the possibility of making numerical weather forecast models and simulations of tropical cyclones. However, typhoons are not mechanical artifacts, and forecasting their track and intensity remains an uncertain science.