HONG KONG ― The narrow, bustling streets of this skyscraper-studded metropolis emptied out early on Saturday night as Typhoon Mangkhut, the world’s most powerful storm this year, barreled westward across the Pacific.
At 6 p.m., the Hong Kong Observatory issued a Signal No. 3, a weather advisory indicating tropical depression-strength winds are expected. By then, shopkeepers secured storefront windows with X’s of masking tape. Airlines canceled hundreds of flights. Grocery store shelves lay bare as the densely populated Chinese autonomous territory of over 7 million rushed to buy essentials. Atop Victoria Peak, the scenic mountain overlook, a uniformed guide urged throngs of tourists streaming in off the tram to quickly take pictures and go as the sun sank toward China’s Guangdong Province.
“Typhoon is coming,” he said. “Hurry.”
Just before midnight, the observatory warned of a “severe threat to the region,” with the storm still about 267 miles southeast. The official meteorological service upgraded the typhoon to a No. 8 gale ― indicating a tropical storm ― at 1:10 a.m., forcing a total shutdown of the city. By Sunday afternoon, the storm surge could raise water levels over 11 feet in Victoria Harbor and even higher in Tai O, a fishing village on the west side of Lantau, Hong Kong’s largest island.
Waves from then-Super Typhoon Mangkhut, named for the Thai word for the mangosteen fruit, swept a woman out to sea in Taiwan on Friday. Earlier on Saturday, the storm left at least 16 dead in the Philippines as it lashed Luzon with sustained winds of over 105 miles per hour and gusts of nearly 162 miles per hour and inundated the archipelago’s northern island with floodwaters.
The Philippines was expected to suffer the worst damage. Nearly 11 million Filipino families last year rated themselves as in poverty in a survey, a marked increase from the year before, and photos posted online showed the tin roofs ripped from shacks on Saturday. The country remains haunted by the disaster of Super Typhoon Haiyan, which left more than 6,000 dead in November 2013.
The storm comes as Hurricane Florence drenched the Carolinas in the United States, weakening from a terrifying Category 4 to a Category 1 as it made landfall Friday morning. As of Saturday afternoon, the storm had knocked out power to nearly 930,000 homes and businesses and left multiple people dead.
“Typhoon Mangkhut is a huge monster with very similar strengths as Hurricane Florence,” said Yuan Xu, an associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Yet the damage to Hong Kong will be limited, he said. The city began building electrical cable tunnels in 1988, and many of its power lines are underground.
“The city has learned from past lessons to get itself well prepared,” he said. “Strong wind is not expected to cause significant, if any, disruption of electricity supply.”
Typhoon Mangkhut is a huge monster with very similar strengths as Hurricane Florence.
Yuan Xu, Chinese University of Hong Kong
Still, hotel staff in the Lan Kwai Fong area of central Hong Kong warned guests to charge phones and stock up on foodstuffs and water.
It’s difficult for scientists to directly connect powerful storms to rising global temperatures on either side of the planet. But a team of researchers from Stony Brook University, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research this week found that Hurricane Florence would likely soak the Carolinas with 50 percent more rain than it would have without climate change, according to their study. The team used a computer model to compile two sets of forecasts, one with observed atmospheric conditions and sea surface temperatures and the other stripped of the warming already resulting from climate change.
No such research has yet come out on Typhoon Mangkhut. But Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist and professor at Texas Tech University, said the storm demonstrates the kind of extreme weather expected to become more frequent as record fossil fuel emissions increase warming.
“We do know that, on average, climate change is making storms stronger, causing them to intensify faster, increasing the amount of rainfall associated with a given storm, and even making them move more slowly,” she said.
This story has been updated to reflect the latest information on Hurricane Florence.
CORRECTION: This story previously misstated the strength of Typhoon Mangkhut as it approached Hong Kong. The storm is no longer a super typhoon.