James Reynolds in Hoi An In September 2006, after experiencing the force of typhoon Xangsane.
By BILL MARCUS
Asia is facing the most destructive typhoons ever. Bill Marcus meets a British researcher determined to be there when they hit.
James Reynolds became convinced that there were even bigger, more devastating disasters waiting to happen. The British storm-chaser was in coastal Vietnam when the devastating winds and rains hit, devastating the lives of millions and killing hundreds across the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand. Since then, his reports on internet forums (such as www.ukweatherworld.co.uk and www.storm2k.org) have carried a strong warning: the world’s emissions are cooking up stronger storms for the vulnerable, forgotten peoples along Asia ‘s crowded coastlines.
Reynolds was in Hoi An, an ancient city turned tourist-spot, when the storm hit, and found himself caught up in the hundreds seeking refuge in a local school. Fourteen people died in that small city that day, and a further 317 were injured, according to the Red Cross. Across Vietnam, Xangsane took 59 lives, injured 527, destroyed 15,100 houses and damaged 251,000 more, at a cost of £320m. Three thousand families are still in emergency accommodation.
“It was the first time I’d seen a massive evacuation,” says the blond, blue-eyed 23 year-old from Gloucestershire. “Elderly Vietnamese huddled in shock and misunderstanding as rains and winds outside were peeling off the corrugated roofs of homes and health-stations. The winds sent one baby airborne – though, incredibly, it was unharmed.”
A year previously, Reynolds had started along the career-path that would lead to him to becoming a storm-chaser – “one of only two in Asia ” , he tells me. He began by intercepting weather warnings and documenting the Orient’s nastiest storms and publishing details on the internet. It was, he recalls, an exciting adventure. But the Hoi An experience was different – a wake-up call.
What makes such a storm strong is how warm the water is on the surface of the ocean, and how far down that warm water goes, Reynolds tells me. He explains that one of the effects of climate change is that the area of Pacific water that is 26.5C has expanded and is now 50 metres deep, and that’s a killer recipe.
Although Reynolds, an Edinburgh Chinese-language graduate, does not have the classroom training in the science of storms, many agree with his warnings. A supercomputer model has concluded that tropical storms in the northwest Pacific are getting worse, and will continue to do so for the next 100 years.
“The number of typhoons will decrease but stronger typhoons will increase,” says Takanori Mizuno, a spokesperson for the planning office of the Meteorological Research Institute of Japan, in Tsukuba; and Dr KK Yeung, Senior Scientific Officer of the Hong Kong Observatory department specialising in climate change and climate prediction, concurs. But perhaps the most chilling is Dang Van Tao, the Red Cross disaster management manager for Vietnam, who says: “It’s not safe at all during the coming typhoon season because of global warming.”
Storm-chasers like Reynolds see their job as framing the science, bringing attention to the realities and presenting them for public scrutiny. Reynolds, who claims to be the first to chase a storm in Vietnam, writes ongoing reports, giving blow-by-blow accounts and posting his photographs online.
“What I’m doing is highlighting the effects of what is happening. People see what these storms can do, and that not just America gets nailed by them,” he says. “The population of East Asia is massive – and so many of them are the poorest people,” says Reynolds. This means that the evacuation of a major urban centre in an emerging Asian nation – such as Hong Kong, or Shanghai, where he lives – would be unthinkable.
But opening the world’s eyes may prove as hard as stopping the rain. “A devastating storm will hit Asia and it won’t be reported outside of Asia, but if even the lowest category of hurricane hits America, it is news all over the world,” says Reynolds’s mentor, Geoff Mackley, 43.
Mackley, Asia’s first and only other storm-chaser, was born in Auckland, and earns a living providing film of storm-related breaking news to TV3, one of New Zealand’s two main networks. Tagged “Dangerman” by the Discovery Channel, which has featured him in five programmes, he has documented 35 major Asian crises over the last decade.
The Kiwi has been a professional storm-chaser for 17 years. “The day the tsunami hit, in 2004, I was sent up to Aceh [in Indonesia] to film it. Halfway there we were told to divert to Thailand because three New Zealanders had been killed there. There seems to be a different value on Western lives.”
Reynolds’s seduction by the power of winds and weather began at the age of six. A lightning bolt in a blizzard struck the wing of an airplane in which he was riding, over Norway.
“I remember being fascinated by it, and going, ‘cool’,” he says cocking his head to stare at the sky. Later, he says he found it exhilarating to be locked out of his house in the middle of an English thunderstorm. While studying at Edinburgh, he took a scholarship in Taiwan in 2005. There he dropped his books and picked up his camera to document Typhoon Haitang, his first. When Matsa struck a few weeks later, he took a train to Taiwan’s northern coast to experience it. Three weeks later, on a flight to the east of Taiwan to intercept the eye of Typhoon Talim, he encountered Mackley.
“He’s just brilliant,” says the veteran. It’s not always that you meet someone who doesn’t drive you up a wall. He doesn’t complain.” Mackley, who usually prefers to work alone, says that since Talim he doesn’t, because of Reynolds’s easy-going nature. The younger man’s language skills are also a plus.
Living a Bohemian life in Shanghai, where food prices are low, makes Reynolds’s travel affordable. Family finances also help. But what about his own carbon footprint? Is he worried about the impact of his airmiles? ” I’ll have to look into that,” he replies, then gets defensive. “If people chose not to fly, how would you get to the Philippines?”
Though he proclaims not to be an eco-warrior, and desperately wants to run his storm-chasing as a business, Reynolds is moved by what he has seen.
“The people in these areas are going to be the ones hardest hit when the storms crank up. A wealthy country like Japan or Taiwan can afford to spend more on research than, say, an emerging economy like the Philippines or Vietnam,” he says . “In Okinawa [in Japan], lamp-posts are as thick as tree trunks, and road signs are designed to give and swing with the wind. Schools are literally built like bomb shelters. They’ve got the money, the technology and the infrastructure.”
Back in Shanghai, as he places a pair of new wicker chairs on his girlfriend’s 26th-floor patio, he checks the sky. “Good place to watch the thunderstorms – and the neighbours,” he laughs.
His dream job is to go around the United States, “presenting severe weather with a British accent”. With the profit from selling plastic aquarium plants on eBay and another dip into his savings, he’ll fund his Asian adventure with Mackley, with whom he communicates daily by online instant messaging. They are headed next to the Aral sea in Kazakhstan to document “the world’s largest man-made environmental disaster zone” . All their findings, photos and data will be uploaded to the internet. And hopefully, prays the storm-chaser from Gloucestershire, the result will be more than just a whisper in the wind.
Disaster zones: the cities that are most at risk
The civil authorities’ preparations have improved since 1970, when of the capital of Bangladesh was hit by surges, flooding, and winds, from a tropical cyclone that killed 300,000. Yet, in 1991, a similarly strong cyclone killed 138,000.
In this coastal province south of Shanghai live 50 million Chinese. It is one of the country’s three centres of industry, yet its urban areas, including the colonial treaty-ports of Ningbo and Wenzhou, are regularly pummelled by seasonal storms.
Communist China’s capitalist showcase is built on sweat, hard work and geological run-off, rather than solid rock. At only four feet above sea level it is already sinking. “It could be this year, it could be in 400 years,” says Reynolds, “but when the big one comes, how will city officials evacuate five million migrant workers?”
* HONG KONG
The former British colony at the mouth of the Pearl River delta is an isolated peninsula surrounded by 1,000 islands. To Reynolds it is an economic disaster waiting to happen. “What kills a lot of people in China is inland flooding,” he says, “and the entire delta is at risk. Hong Kong people can climb to the top of the mountain on the main island, but where will you evacuate the people from the smaller islands?”
This article was originally published in The Independent.
James Reynolds website is Earth Uncut.