Typhoon Soudelor poses a grave threat to Taiwan later this week as the powerful tropical cyclone swirls closer to the island off the southeast coast of China. The storm has weakened since it produced 180 MPH winds on Monday, but it’s predicted to restrengthen to a destructive category four before landfall on Friday.

The typhoon tore across Saipan—an island in the Northern Marianas Islands that’s home to 48,000 people—this weekend, displacing thousands of people after causing widespread power outages and building damage. Guam’s Pacific Daily News reports that it could take a month for power and water services to be restored to all of Saipan.

Shortly thereafter, Soudelor exploded into a super typhoon, a designation that’s roughly the equivalent of a category five on the Saffir-Simpson Scale. Soudelor briefly reached maximum sustained winds of 180 MPH before it began to weaken and lose some of its structure—it’s difficult for intense tropical cyclones to maintain extreme strength for too long before they start to fall apart.

Even though it’s not as strong as it was two days ago, Typhoon Soudelor is still a formidable cyclone with maximum winds of 115 MPH according to the latest advisory from the Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JTWC), the tropical cyclone forecasting branch of the United States military run by the Navy and Air Force. The agency expects Soudelor to regain strength over the next day as it barrels toward Taiwan, potentially growing into a monster again just before landfall, packing sustained winds of 140 MPH with gusts of 165 MPH if predictions hold true.

If the center of Soudelor stays along its current predicted path, the worst of the storm’s eyewall will miss the northern tip of the island, where the Taipei metro area—home to nearly ten million people—is located. However, the Taipei area is firmly within the storm’s cone of uncertainty, and any wobble to the north in the storm’s track will bring life-threatening weather into the densely populated urban areas.

As if the potential for sustained winds of 140 MPH isn’t bad enough, the typhoon will bring very heavy rain to the mountainous island, with extensive flash flood and mud/landslides a certainty. Soudelor’s strongest winds and heaviest rain will concentrate on the eastern side of Taiwan near the foot of the mountains that stretch the length the island. Orographic lifting—winds hitting the side of the mountain and lifting into the atmosphere, greatly enhancing precipitation—will lead to some areas seeing 20 or more inches of rain from the typhoon as it passes through.

Coastal communities in the path of the right-front quadrant (the northern side) of Soudelor’s eyewall will also experience a destructive storm surge, especially if the storm restrengthens as anticipated by the JTWC. Given the likelihood of wind, flood, and storm surge damage to regional utilities and infrastructure, it’s likely that some rural communities—especially ones near the foot of the mountains or near the coast—will be cut off from the outside world for a significant period of time after the storm.

Residents and agencies in Taiwan are preparing for the arrival of Soudelor by securing buildings and cancelling transportation and plans ahead of the storm. Local news agencies also report that vendors are raising the price of vegetables in response to the storm “because of expectations of supply shortages” (read: price gouging), and the government is asking people not to stockpile food because, as The China Post puts it, “there will be enough.”

Once a much weaker Soudelor crosses into the Taiwan Strait, it will continue into mainland China where it will produce strong winds (it could still have sustained winds of 100+ MPH on its second landfall) and more flooding rainfall.

As a geeky aside, Monday’s maximum sustained winds of 180 MPH made Typhoon Soudelor the strongest storm we’ve seen on Earth so far in 2015, but winds that strong aren’t all that unusual for this part of the world. Last year, Typhoons Vongfong, Nuri, and Hagupit all reached maximum one-minute sustained winds of 180 MPH, and 2013’s Haiyan—which killed more than 6,000 people in the Philippines—made landfall with one-minute sustained winds of 195 MPH, becoming both the strongest storm ever recorded (by wind speed) and the strongest storm ever recorded at landfall. The environment in the western Pacific is favorable for the development and maintenance of intense tropical cyclones on a level that we rarely see in the Atlantic Ocean.

[Images: NOAA, Google Earth, WeatherBELL]

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