A powerful cyclone that formed in the Bay of Bengal over the weekend is making a beeline for the India-Bangladesh border, bringing with it the potential for major destruction.
The cyclone, named Amphan, is spinning in the Bay of Bengal and is centered 630 miles south of Kolkata, India (as of 8 a.m. EDT on May 18). Its maximum sustained winds have reached 160 mph, which is equivalent to a super typhoon or a category 5 Atlantic hurricane. This makes Amphan the strongest tropical cyclone in recorded history to develop in the northern Indian Ocean/Bay of Bengal.
The sea surface temperatures in the region are very warm, providing ample fuel for Amphan to maintain strength for a while. Even though Amphan may weaken before landfall, winds could still be more than 100 mph when it comes ashore. It could cause significant damage since it is forecast to hit near poor, densely populated areas with notoriously unreliable infrastructure. If it lands in the low-lying delta, there is also the potential for major storm surges, possibly as high as 30 feet.
The latest forecasts have Amphan making landfall Wednesday in the Ganges River Delta near the India-Bangladesh border, threatening the lives and livelihoods of millions of people and causing significant disruptions to supply chains in this extremely vulnerable area. This includes sea ports and oil facilities.
The storm could also bring heavy rains to the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, where almost 1 million Rohingya refugees have sought shelter after fleeing violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. A storm could be particularly devastating in the camp, especially when considering that the first known COVID-19 cases were confirmed there just last week. One human rights advocate told CNN that a novel coronavirus outbreak in the camp would be a “nightmare scenario.”
This comes at a time of many firsts throughout the tropics. The first typhoon of the year, Vongfong, rapidly developed before slamming into the Philippines on the evening of May 14. Over the weekend, Tropical Storm Arthur became the first named storm of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, which officially starts June 1.
May is not an unusual time to get tropical cyclones in the northern Indian Ocean. This region of the world has two distinct tropical cyclone seasons – April to June and October to November. This marks the months immediately before and after the southwest Indian monsoon season. During the monsoon season upper level winds are not favorable for tropical cyclone development.