CNN is now reporting the death toll from the Myanmar cyclone at “22,464 with 41,000 missing. The U.N. is estimating that as many as 1 million could be missing.” What exactly is a tropical cyclone, how is it capable of causing this type of devastation and can it happen here?
According to Gale’s Science Resource Center, “a fully developed tropical cyclone is a circular complex of thunderstorms about 400 mi (645 km) in diameter and more than 7.5 mi (12 km) high. Winds near the core of the cyclone can exceed 110 mph (177 km/h).” The destruction is caused not only by winds reaching 110 miles per hour, but by storm surges that can reach 16 ft. “In 1900 the city of Galveston, Texas, was struck by a storm surge during a hurricane. One eyewitness reported that the sea rose 4 ft (1.2 m) in a matter of seconds.”
The Australian Geographic reports that cyclones are not actually unique to the tropics. In fact, "basically, these are all geographical names for the same weather phenomena," he said. "If you're in the Atlantic or eastern and central Pacific Ocean region, they're known as hurricanes; in the South China Sea they're typhoons; and if you're in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean they're tropical cyclones.”
The area of devastation covered by the Myanmar cyclone is over 30,000 square kilometers. For a sense of the size of the storm look at these Cyclone images from NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.