At the Edge of a Tempest

Back to Contents of Issue: September 2004

by Michael E. Stanley

THEY USUALLY BEGIN in the summer and strike periodically until well into autumn, riding the warm southern waters of the Kuroshio (Black Current), the great river-in-the-sea that flows northeastward along Japan's Pacific coast. Together with the tsuyu, Japan's monsoon rains, they are the most obvious evidence of the great seasonal metronome.

The Japanese call them taifu, which is written with the ideographs for 'pedestal' or 'calyx' (‘ä) and 'wind' (•—). From it derives the English 'typhoon.' Typhoons are tropical cyclones, storm systems that commonly evolve in near-equatorial latitudes. The term 'typhoon' refers to such cyclones occurring in the Pacific west of the International Date Line and north of the Equator. Between the International Date Line and the Greenwich Meridian, the term 'hurricane' (from the Arawak word urakan -- 'center of the wind') is used.

The photograph is not of a typhoon proper, but of the smaller thunderheads at the farthest edge of an advancing system. It was taken from the cockpit of an F-15D fighter returning to Okinawa's Kadena Air Base.

A typhoon was approaching, but it was still almost three days away. At 27,000 feet, our flight of four jets was surrounded with great colonnades of sunlit cloud -- the sky's warm and humid spaces were filled with these vigorous thunderheads whose height and size could only hint at the huge mass of the storm to come. We flew between and around them, dwarfed by their towering magnificence.

Each season sees between a half dozen and a dozen typhoons track through the main islands of the Japanese archipelago. The number that strike subtropical Okinawa Prefecture can be twice that. There is often some flood and wind damage, and occasional loss of life; if the typhoon is a particularly powerful one, major damage can result. Large or small, they are freighted with precious rain that fills lakes and reservoirs. A year with few typhoons is a year of pinched water supplies.

These great storms, with their howling winds and driving rains, are a fact of life in Japan. @

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