SCIENCE BEHIND THE NEWS: Cyclone Mocha tears through Asia, leaving destruction in its wake.

On May 14, Cyclone Mocha swept through Myanmar and southeastern Bangladesh, causing widespread damage but largely sparing the extensive refugee camps in the region. The powerful storm, with winds reaching up to 195 kph, made landfall between Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, and Sittwe, Myanmar, marking the most significant cyclonic event in the Bay of Bengal in over ten years.

Though the storm had mostly subsided by late Sunday, India’s weather office predicted it would continue to weaken as it encountered the rugged terrain of Myanmar’s interior. Despite the destruction, Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar, housing nearly one million individuals, saw only 400 to 500 makeshift shelters damaged and no immediate reports of casualties, according to refugee commissioner Mizanur Rahman.

In Teknaf, Bangladesh, volunteers worked to clear fallen trees and debris from roadways. Disaster official Kamrul Hasan reported that the cyclone had not caused significant damage in Bangladesh and that approximately 750,000 people had been evacuated prior to the storm.

Communications with the port town of Sittwe in Myanmar were largely severed following the cyclone. The town’s streets turned into rivers, with roofs ripped from buildings and power lines toppled. In Kyaukphyu, a camp for displaced Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, the fierce winds destroyed homes made of tarpaulin and bamboo.

Cyclones in South Asia, particularly in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, pose significant annual threats due to the region’s unique geography and climatology. They generally occur during two main seasons, pre-monsoon (April-June) and post-monsoon (October-December). These powerful storms bring intense rainfall, high winds, and surges that often result in severe flooding and devastation.

DID YOU KNOW? Cyclones form under specific atmospheric conditions. They typically originate over warm ocean waters, usually at temperatures above 26.5 degrees Celsius. The warm water heats the air above it, causing the air to rise and create an area of low pressure beneath. 

Surrounding air rushes in to fill this low-pressure void, and as it moves, it takes up the moisture from the ocean surface. This air also rises and starts to cool down, and the moisture within it condenses to form clouds and rain. The Earth's rotation causes the moving air to start to spiral, creating the distinctive cyclonic pattern. 

As long as the conditions remain favorable, with a continuous supply of moisture and heat from the ocean, the storm continues to grow and intensify. When the cyclone makes landfall, it is cut off from its heat and moisture source, causing it to weaken and dissipate.

Among the most notorious cyclones is the 1970 Bhola Cyclone, which killed approximately 500,000 people in present-day Bangladesh. Climate change is predicted to potentially increase the intensity of these cyclones, heightening the region’s vulnerability. South Asian nations have made considerable strides in disaster management, improving early warning systems and evacuation plans to mitigate the human cost. Yet, the economic impact remains substantial, necessitating further development of resilient infrastructures and sustainable adaptation strategies.

As the storm continued, thousands of people left Sittwe, seeking higher ground and safety from the predicted storm surge of up to 3.5 meters. The Myanmar Red Cross Society prepared for a substantial emergency response effort.

In Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees are prohibited from building concrete homes to discourage permanent settlement. Most camps are located slightly inland, but their placement on hillsides makes them vulnerable to landslides. The cyclone is expected to bring heavy rainfall, which may trigger these landslides.

On Saint Martin’s Island in Bangladesh, hundreds of people fled the popular resort area, while thousands more sought shelter in cyclone shelters. The storm uprooted hundreds of trees, but no fatalities were reported.

Cyclone Mocha is the most powerful storm to impact Bangladesh since Cyclone Sidr in 2007, which caused the deaths of over 3,000 people and billions of dollars in damages. Improved forecasting and evacuation planning in recent years have significantly reduced the death toll from such storms.

As the world continues to grapple with climate change, scientists warn that storms like Cyclone Mocha are becoming increasingly powerful and deadly, threatening millions of people living along the coastlines of the northern Indian Ocean.

WORDS: The Biology Guy.


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