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This Week in Disasters

Yemen’s Rare Cyclone Puts the Country Underwater

This image captured on Oct. 31, 2015 from the International Space Station and posted on the Twitter account of astronaut Scott Kelly shows the Cyclone Chapala off the coast of Oman.

Cyclones are typhoons are hurricanes—depending on where you are on Earth. But one thing that has been true since people started keeping good records is that cyclones don’t typically hit the Middle East. Last night, that statement flipped to false. Tropical Cyclone Chapala made landfall on Yemen, flooding coastal regions of the desert nation.

Chapala is supposed to drop a decade’s worth of rain in days; steep mountains along the coastline push its clouds up and its moisture out. And Yemen isn’t accustomed to heavy rain, let alone cyclones. The country averages 2 to 3 inches a year. Chapala could drop more than 20 inches. It’s as if Los Angeles got a nor’easter, or Dallas had a volcanic eruption. “Yemen is not the most well prepared spot for a storm of this magnitude to make landfall,” says Amato Evan, a climate scientist at Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego.

Making matters worse, Yemen barely has a government. The country has been fighting a civil war for the better part of a decade, and it is historically one of the poorest Middle Eastern countries. Unemployment hovers around 35 percent, and Al Qaeda and other insurgent groups control parts of the country. That means little organized response: The rescue and aid work people in, say, South Carolina might expect won’t come. It can’t come. The United Nations, World Health Organization, and Doctors Without Borders are working to fill the gap.

“In modern records, there has never been a tropical cyclone that has struck so far south along Yemen’s coast,” says Bob Henson, meteorologist and blogger at Weather Underground. The Arabian sea is warm enough for storms to form, but too small for them to get very strong. And monsoon season—running from July to September—limits when cyclones can form to a few months in early spring and late fall. If they do form, and if weather conditions steer them towards the Arabian Peninsula, the desert region’s dry climate usually destroys their structure or saps their energy before landfall. “They tend to get sheared apart by upper level winds, or get their moisture sucked away by hot dry air from the peninsula,” Henson says.

Scientists have long predicted that unusually strong, unusually located storms would be a consequence of higher sea surface temperatures driven by climate change. “The warmer the water, the more energy a cyclone has to draw from,” says Henson. Of course, it’s impossible to say whether this particular storm owed its strength to the longer term climate trend, or the weather’s natural, short-term variability. But the odds must look a little skewed to the Yemenis.

Tropical Cyclone Chapala batters Mukalla, Yemen, on Monday, Nov. 2, 2015.

The Afghan Quake’s True Cost Could Come in the Winter

Residents of Peshawar begin recovery efforts in a building damaged by 7.6-magnitude earthquake on October 26, 2015. Residents of Peshawar begin recovery efforts in a building damaged by 7.6-magnitude earthquake on October 26, 2015. ppiimages/Demotix/Corbis

On Monday, a massive earthquake shook the Hindu Kush mountains. Residents felt its effects across hundreds of miles, but so far reports of any destruction have been minimal relative to the quake’s 7.51 magnitude.

That doesn’t mean the threat is over. Tomorrow, military and aid workers will survey the damage in outlying areas, and probably return with more injured and dead. But not all earthquake damage can be counted in bodies. In the coming months, the aid mission will shift to helping those on the wrong side of earthquake-sundered infrastructure make it through the winter.

In Pakistan, the majority of the earthquake’s damage hit a region called the Khyber Pukhthunkhwa. (Don’t wear yourself out on that pronunciation, locals call it KPK.) “This is on the border of Afghanistan, and those places are out of contact,” says Rubina Mumtaz, country director in Pakistan for the aid group Real Medicine Foundation.

Monday’s earthquake is, in some ways, a throwback to 2005. That year, this month, a 7.3 earthquake struck in almost the same region. However, that quake killed more than 80,000. Casualties reported so far for this quake number just 231, according to Pakistani news station GEO TV. “RMF has a hospital in KPK, and up through the end of the day we didn’t have any casualties,” says Mumtaz. “I think the number of injured is low enough for the local hospitals to handle.”

But response groups to the current quake should really pay attention to the way its predecessor affected people for months after it hit. In 2005, the 7.3 magnitude quake cut off major mountainous regions during a particularly brutal winter. While this year’s quake was nowhere near as calamitous in its initial damage, Mumtaz expects similar problems over the winter months.

As winter creeps in, mountain towns rely on food and supplies from the south. Earthquakes trigger landslides, covering roads and cutting people in these remote areas off from aid. “Already today several landslides happened that have covered sections of road,” says Mumtaz.

Even though this quake’s depth muted its shaking—the epicenter was 130 miles2 deep—it probably caused some serious structural damage in poor areas. “Houses that are makeshift shelters will crumble at the tiniest of tremors,” says Mumtaz.

Once winter weather sets in, the lack of shelter will lead to issues like respiratory problems, exposure, and skin disease. (Without homes, people stay bundled up in the same sets of clothes, and often share beds.)

This isn’t a problem Mumtaz is preparing for at some point in the future. The first snows in the Hindu Kush mountains began weeks ago.

1 This magnitude ranking is according to the USGS. Pakistan’s national geological service is calling it an 8.1, while other international reports say 7.7.

2 UPDATE: Correction 1:22pm ET 10/28/2015 Previously, this said the earthquake was a mere 130 feet below the surface. That would be ridiculously shallow.

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The Upside of Afghanistan’s Quake: It Struck Deep

A view of a landslide after an earthquake in Peshawar, Pakistan on October 26, 2015.A view of a landslide after an earthquake in Peshawar, Pakistan on October 26, 2015. Bilal Khan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The Hindu Kush region between Afghanistan and Pakistan is mountainous, poor, and mired in conflict. Today, it is also digging itself out from the rubble of a monster quake.

At around 1:30pm local time, a 7.5 magnitude earthquake emanated from an epicenter about 130 miles below the surface in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province. The quake occurred on the Indian/Eurasian plate boundary—the same subduction zone that caused the Nepal quake earlier this year, and the Kashmir quake from 2005. Currently, the human toll ranges from conservative official estimates of around 100 deaths to on the ground reports as high as 215.

The death toll might not rise as high as the Nepal quake from earlier this year, with an official death toll of nearly 10,000. Geography played some role in the devastating consequences of that quake; it struck near Kathmandu, which is both densely populated and in the middle of a liquefaction zone. But even more important was the quake’s geology.

The Kathmandu quake was very shallow—only 11 miles below the surface. “If you have a shallow quake you will have more damage, and greater potential for injuries,” says Julie Dutton, geophysicist for the USGS. Similarly, the 2005 Kashmir quake—which killed more than 80,000 people—was barely nine miles deep.

By contrast, today’s slippage was of intermediate depth. “A deep earthquake is felt widely, and it has to do with the transfer of energy through the earth’s crust,” says Dutton. Its depth was enough to soften some of the violence of the shaking, but the effects were more widespread than if it were a shallow quake. In Islamabad, 200 miles from the quake’s epicenter, people felt shaking for more than two minutes.

The ultimate toll will probably have a long tail. As winter creeps closer, people in quake-affected regions will have a harder time getting the aid and supplies they need to make it through to spring. In that sense, the most critical figures determining how many people survive this quake will be number of homes destroyed, miles of ruptured road, and dollars of international aid.

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10 Dead, Millions Evacuated After Massive Chile Earthquake

Wednesday1 evening, a gigantic earthquake shook off the coast of Chile. At a magnitude of 8.3, it was the largest earthquake on the planet so far for 2015. In fact, it was five times the energy of Nepal’s April quake. But it had many orders of magnitude less impact on human life and property.

The quake’s epicenter was in the Pacific Ocean, about 30 miles west of the small, mountain city of Illapel. Tsunami warnings forced over a million people to evacuate from Chile’s coasts, and tide buoys reported waves as high as 15 feet above normal levels. Despite the massive shaking, only 10 people are reported dead so far.

In Illapel, about 1,800 people are without water, and in Coquimbo, Illapel’s province1, hundreds of thousands are without electricity, the BBC reports.

The quake occurred on a massive subduction zone, where the oceanic Nazca Plate is slipping beneath the South America Plate at a rate of about three inches a year. And while the epicenter is just the point of strongest shaking, “a quake this size ruptures several hundred kilometers,” says John Bellini, a USGS geophysicist at the National Earthquake Information Center in Colorado. The actual surface area that this earthquake shook measured over 140 miles north to south, and 62 miles east to west.

The 8.3 magnitude quake has so far spawned hundreds of aftershocks, with at least 40 of them at magnitudes greater than 5.0. It’s also caused tsunami waves far across the Pacific. Officials closed beaches in Southern California and Hawaii, and tsunami warnings—and waves—reached as far away as New Zealand.

1Update: Correction 3:47pm ET 9/17/2015 A previous version of this story stated that Illapel was the capital of Coquimbo province. That’s not right. La Serena is the capital of Coquimbo.

1 UPDATE: Correction 12:12pm ET 9/18/15 The original version of this article stated that the earthquake occurred on Thursday evening.

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The Chile Earthquake’s First Tsunami Waves Strike

Damages on a street of Concon, some 110 km northwest of Santiago, on September 17, 2015 hit by an earthquake on the eve. A powerful 8.3-magnitude earthquake struck off Chile Wednesday, Damages on a street of Concon, some 110 km northwest of Santiago, on September 17, 2015 hit by an earthquake on the eve. A powerful 8.3-magnitude earthquake struck off Chile Wednesday, CLAUDIO REYES /Getty Images

A tide gauge off the shore of Coquimbo, a Chilean seaside city less than 100 miles from the epicenter of tonight’s 8.3 moment magnitude earthquake, has logged wave heights in excess of 14 feet. This comes about 90 minutes after the quake struck at 7:54pm local time.

NOAA’s Pacific Tsunami Warning Center has predicted wave heights exceeding 36 feet along the Chilean coast, and smaller events elsewhere in the Pacific. Outside of Chile, French Polynesia, a group of over 100 islands in the middle of the south Pacific, is in the most danger. There, NOAA warns of tsunami waves from three to nine feet.

That may not sound like a lot, but even small tsunami waves, which have the full force of the ocean behind them, can be destructive. The agency also included smaller tsunami warnings for just about any nation that touches Pacific waters.

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A Massive Quake Just Struck Off the Coast of Chile

earthquake-epicenter-featured USGS

At 7:54pm local time, an 8.3 magnitude earthquake struck about 10 miles off the coast of central Chile. So far, the USGS has no reports of damage, nor of tsunamis.

But that doesn’t mean things are necessarily peachy. “It’s still very preliminary,” says Dale Grant, a geophysicist at the USGS National Earthquake Information Center in Colorado. “I’m sure there’s been a lot of communication disruption in that area.” Although there are no large cities in the immediate vicinity of the quake, the epicenter is about 150 miles from Chile’s capital city, Santiago.

The National Tsunami Warning Center has warned that Chile’s shorelines could experience tsunamis exceeding nine feet. “That might not sound like much, but a tsunami wave has all the weight of the ocean behind it,” says Scott Langley, an electronics technician with the National Tsunami Warning Center in Alaska. “This isn’t something you want to go out and ride with your surfboard.”

Since the initial quake, the USGS has reported four aftershocks, ranging from 5.7 to 6.4 magnitude.

This story is being updated as details develop.

1 Update: 8:05pm ET 8/16/15 The National Tsunami Warning Center has issued preliminary warnings that tsunami waves threaten many islands in the south pacific—primarily French Polynesia—and just about every country with a Pacific shore.

2 Update: 8:15pm ET 8/16/15 The USGS is now showing five aftershocks, all occurring within 50 minutes of the original quake.

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Source: Yemen’s Rare Cyclone Puts the Country Underwater

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