Tropical Cyclone Yasa bears down on Fiji, threatening disaster

Washington: Tropical Cyclone Yasa, currently the strongest storm on Earth, is headed for a potentially devastating landfall in Fiji today.

The storm on Thursday morning, local time, had sustained winds estimated at 250 kilometres per hour, which makes it the equivalent of a Category 5 storm. It threatens to cause damage on the scale of Tropical Cyclone Winston, which caused widespread destruction when it hit in 2016.

Satellite image of Category 5 Cyclone Yasa.Credit:CIRA/RAMMB

The Joint Typhoon Warning Centre is forecasting the storm to pass between the main islands of Fiji, but close enough to bring its fiercest winds and heaviest rains to the main island of Viti Levu as well as Vanua Levu and some smaller islands. It's possible, though, that the eye of the storm will came ashore in one or more islands, which could increase the threat of storm surge flooding as well as catastrophic winds and major flooding.

The nation of 600,000 is a small target in a large ocean, and has seen just one landfall of a Category 3 storm or stronger, which was Winston. More recently, Cyclone Harold also hit Fiji, after hammering the small island nation of Vanuatu. Only three storms of Category 3 intensity or greater have passed near Fiji.

Winston was stronger than Yasa, packing winds of 300 km/h at landfall, which made it one of the most powerful tropical cyclones (a term that also includes hurricanes and typhoons) to make landfall anywhere in the world. The storm demolished structures all over Fiji's main island of Viti Levu. Foliage was ripped off trees, and gusts may have been well more than 320 k/hr in some spots.

Cyclone Yasa.

According to the Fiji government, Viti Levu, Vanua Levu and other islands could see wind gusts up to 250 km/h by the afternoon on Thursday, and wave heights of 13 metres or higher as the storm closes in. "There is [a] risk of sea flooding of low-lying coastal areas, especially during high tide from storm surges and damaging heavy swells on Thursday and Friday," the government warned in a message posted on Facebook.

The government has opened evacuation centres. According to a report from ABC News, Fiji's National Disaster Management Office calculated that 600,000 people live in the path of the storm.

"Do not be caught off guard by this latest storm," Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said.

Fiji has been hit hard economically by the coronavirus pandemic, which has squelched tourism, a major source of revenue, and put many out of work.

Under Bainimarama's leadership, Fiji has become an effective proponent of climate action. As a member of AOSIS, a group of 44 small island and low-lying coastal developing states, Fiji is viewed as especially vulnerable to the ravages of climate change, particularly through sea level rise and extreme weather events such as tropical cyclones. On December 11, the UN Environment Program named him a "champion of the Earth" for his efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and negotiate global climate agreements.

The country was the first to ratify the Paris climate accord, according to the program, and is trying to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

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