2015 is a year that’s determined to break every record possible. Just a week after we saw the strongest tropical cyclone ever recorded, we’ve got one of the strongest cyclones ever recorded in the Arabian Sea, and it’s aiming straight for Yemen. You know, that ol’ tropical paradise.
It didn’t take very long for Cyclone Chapala to rapidly intensify from the equivalent of a tropical storm to a Super Cyclonic Storm, which is a decidedly badass name for a storm that’s just bad if you’re in its path. It took just 24 hours for the storm to bump its 65 MPH winds up to 155 MPH today at 0600Z, or 2:00 AM EDT on the U.S. East Coast.
Just as we call mature tropical cyclones “hurricanes” around North America and “typhoons” near Asia, strong tropical cyclones are just called “cyclones” in the Indian Ocean. The designation ‘Super Cyclonic Storm’ is applied to storms with a strength equivalent to a category four or category five hurricane.
The latest advisory from the Joint Typhoon Warning Center puts Chapala’s maximum sustained winds at 150 MPH with gusts to 185 MPH, and they expect this storm to strengthen to the equivalent of a category five on the Saffir-Simpson scale by Saturday, peaking with winds somewhere around 160 MPH before (hopefully) weakening as it approaches the Arabian Peninsula.
Assuming Cyclone Chapala manages to hold its composure as it closes in on the desert, it’s forecast to make landfall near the border with Yemen and Oman on Monday with sustained winds of about 90 MPH. If the storm stays on its predicted track and makes landfall in this war-torn country, it will affect the governorate of Al Mahrah (comparable to a state or province), which is home to about 100,000 people, almost all of whom live in towns along the coast.
The latest run of the GFS model shows a bad situation in Yemen, where more than a foot of rain could fall if the storm holds it together as it swirls headlong into the dry desert air. The resulting heavy rains would produce devastating flash flooding across areas where it typically takes many years to see this much rain.
There is a huge asterisk next to all of these forecasts. Tropical cyclones in the Arabian Sea have a habit of withering away as they encounter the desert atmosphere, so the forecasts and model products are close to representing the worst case scenario. However, cyclones and their rains can survive to land, and it did happen earlier this year. Cyclone Ashobaa grazed eastern Oman this past June, producing significant flash flooding across the affected areas.
If it seems strange that there’s a classic buzzsaw-like tropical cyclone swirling toward Yemen of all places, that’s because it is. We usually see a handful of tropical cyclones in the Indian Ocean every year—they’re more common on the other side of India—but storms that form in the Arabian Sea usually don’t get this strong and they usually don’t make it to landfall. Only Cyclones Gonu (2007) and Phet (2010) are recorded to have made landfall on the Arabian Peninsula with winds equivalent to those of a hurricane, but those were both in Oman, and there are no records of a cyclone this strong making ever landfall in Yemen.
As far as I can find, 155 MPH Cyclone Chapala is now the second-strongest tropical cyclone ever recorded in the Arabian Sea, coming in behind 2007’s Cyclone Gonu, which briefly achieved 165 MPH winds before weakening. Gonu slowly weakened before making landfalls in Oman and Iran, producing catastrophic damage and flooding in its wake; the storm killed dozens of people and caused billions of dollars in damage.