Are cyclones in Burma our fault?

Over a hundred thousand souls have lost their lives in Burma as a result of a cyclone. Many more are likely to perish in the aftermath when diease arrives in the wake of the devastation of the infrastructure.

A tropical cyclone is an event of extreme weather. They can happen frequently but a cyclone with the devastation and force of the cyclone that struck the Irrawaddy Delta in Burma has been described by US weather experts as an event that is likely to happen once every 500 years.

In the northern hemisphere places like Burma experience cyclones usually between June and November in this way. A tropical cyclone is in essence a way in which stored solar energy is released. The sun heat up the ocean around the equator until it reaches a temperature in excess of 26.5°C. A low air pressure system then helps air convection currents pull water vapour from the ocean that forms storm clouds.

The clouds in the low pressure area start to rotate anti-clockwise. Sometimes the rotation is relatively mild but sometimes the rotation (encouraged by the rotation of the earth) becomes very violent and part of our planet experiences warmth created hurricanes, typhoons or cyclones, as Burma experienced with Cyclone Nargis and its winds of 120 miles per hour striking a very low lying area unsheltered from the winds.

Often these tropical cyclones spend themselves over less populated parts of Burma but Cyclone Nargis swept into the heavily populated low lying part of the Delta, rather in the same way that Katrina swept into New Orleans.

This part of Burma (or more properly Myanmar) is where much delta farming is carried out. Traditionally its climate is benign and relative predictable. When the huge cyclone struck it brought with it not only storms and winds but huge amounts of sea water, some of it eight metres high, which apparently struck up to 25 miles inland.

These kinds of events have struck the Burmese coast previously, but when they did their force was expended upon mangrove forests and swamps. These days most of the mangroves have been replaced by shrimp farms and rice paddies.

If you live within twenty five miles of the sea you can picture the devastation that would occur if an eight metre salt water tidal wave struck the coast near you and travelled 25 miles.

Could more have been done to warn and protect the people of Burma? I doubt it. Burma is a very poor country with difficult communications. In Bangladesh a similar sized cyclone caused relatively moderate loss of life – around 3,000 people, recently. People in Burma may not have listened to cyclone warnings even if there was a sophisticated cyclone warning system and cyclone exit routes such as exists in Bangladesh, because the Burmese may have preferred to risk their lives in order to protect their meagre possessions.

Did climate change and in particular global warming create the conditions that made Cyclone Nargis happen? Meteorologists are unsure because there is not enough meteorological data available about the Indian Ocean. Traditionally climate scientists hold that global warming will inevitable cause more storms and more violent storms, although there is simply not enough evidence to lay the blame for Cyclone Nargis at our fossil fuel combustion’s door.

If Cyclone Nargis was caused by changes in the climate caused by our emissions it illustrates very well what really happens. We burn the fossil fuel in the developed world and the low parts of the undeveloped world suffer first. Make no mistake there is real suffering in Burma’s delta region caused by this devastating cyclone.

However much aid the developed world gives we cannot make it right, we cannot bring back life. It may not be as simple as the more oil gas and coal we burn for our luxuries and the more tropical mangrove forests we cut down for our cheap shrimp cocktails the more dead and disease and starvation will be experienced in places like Burma. But then again, it may be just as simple as that.


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