‘Extremely severe’ Cyclone Tauktae set to slam Gujarat, India

Women with their children leave their houses and evacuate to a safer place ahead of Cyclone Tauktae in Veraval in the western state of Gujarat, India, May 17, 2021. REUTERS/Amit Dave

Parts of western India are bracing for a direct strike from a powerhouse “extremely severe cyclonic storm” on Monday night, with the potential for devastating impacts as destructive winds combine with a significant storm surge, or rise in water above normally dry land.

Cyclone Tauktae, named on Friday morning Eastern time, is barreling toward the Indian state of Gujarat at major hurricane strength.

Tauktae comes as India continues to grapple with a major spike in coronavirus cases and an outbreak of black fungus. While thousands in Gujarat were evacuated to shelters farther inland, concern rose about potential further transmission of the virus.

The storm, which is packing winds over 130 mph (115 knots) according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center, is expected to strike near the southern tip of Gujarat on Monday night into early Tuesday morning (local time). Winds this strong are the equivalent to those in a high-end Category 3 or low-end Category 4 hurricane.

The storm was located in the Arabian Sea northwest of Mumbai on Monday evening. The worst of the storm avoided the city, the largest in India, by about 100 miles, but heavy rain and strong winds still lashed the city. Mumbai’s main airport was shut down for five hours on Sunday.

The storm has already been blamed for at least 12 deaths in four states along India’s west coast, according to weather.com.

Winds of at least 105 mph and a storm surge, perhaps nearing 10 feet in some areas, are expected where Tauktae makes landfall. Offshore waves could top 50 feet, posing a grave danger to mariners.

The storm peaked in strength Sunday with winds in its eyewall sustained at nearly 140 mph; gusts were estimated to approach 165 mph.

According to Joint Typhoon Warning Center estimates, that would make Tauktae the fifth strongest storm observed in the Arabian Sea. Records there only date back to 1998, however; the first satellite that reliably provided data on Indian Ocean cyclones, Meteosat-7, was launched on Sept. 2, 1997.

The storm was located a little more than 100 miles west-northwest of Mumbai at midday Monday (local time), moving north-northwestward at about 9 mph. It had just over 100 miles to go before landfall in Gujarat, India’s ninth most populous state and home to more than 60 million people.

The area between Diu, at the southern tip of Gujarat, and Mahuva, about 45 miles northeast, appeared to be in the greatest danger of an imminent landfall. Cities such as Jafarabad, Babarkot and Bhankodar were also in line to be hard hit by the storm.

In addition to wind and surge, the region is particularly susceptible to inland flooding due to its sandy soil that is less efficient in allowing water to drain. More than a foot of rain is possible, with rainfall rates of up to 3 inches per hour in Tauktae’s core.

“Sea condition is phenomenal,” the India Meteorological Department wrote in an online bulletin. The agency is predicting Tauktae will weaken slightly into a “very severe cyclonic storm” by the time it makes landfall. Coastal flooding could be a problem even east of Gujarat in the Gulf of Khambat, where southerly winds on the right side of the storm could funnel water up into the bay and pile it against the shoreline.

Originally, forecasters were concerned that Mumbai could be in the line of fire, with worry also present at one point that Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and home to 15 million people, could be hit. Tauktae will instead pass midway between both cities, lessening impact in the major economic hubs.

On satellite Monday, Tauktae didn’t exhibit a classic clear eye. Instead, the 13-mile-wide feature was partially enveloped in cloud cover. Despite this, the storm had been intensifying on Sunday night, as shown by the presence of colder cloud tops, which means that individual thunderstorms surrounding the eye were reaching higher into the atmosphere.

Microwave satellite imagery, which is able to sense below the surface of clouds to garner an inside look at the storm’s structure, suggested that Tauktae’s eye was not symmetric on Sunday evening – perhaps a symptom of restructuring or an eyewall replacement cycle.

“Eye continued to remain ragged,” noted the India Meteorological Department.

In Mumbai, winds gusted to near 40 mph with intermittent rain squalls and thunder as Tauktae’s outer rain bands clipped the region over the weekend. Mumbai spent hours firmly beneath Tauktae’s central dense overcast, or the region of thick clouds surrounding the core of a storm. The city of more than 12 million was spared a more direct impact by the storm; it’s estimated that a Category 3 or greater equivalent storm only passes within 100 miles of Mumbai once every 500 years or so.

Tauktae was located in an overall favorable environment characterized by very warm sea surface temperatures around 88 degrees and calm upper-level winds. That lack of wind shear, or a change of wind speed and/or direction with height, allows Tauktae to continue spinning furiously without interrupting its circulation.

In fact, divergence, or a spreading of winds at the upper levels, was helping to sustain Tauktae by aiding its outflow. In other words, high-altitude winds were venting the storm, evacuating air the cyclone had already exhaled in order to allow it to ingest more warm, moisture-rich air from near the surface.

Tauktae is expected to weaken and largely dissipate within 48 hours of landfall, but could still bring pockets of flash flooding far inland. It comes at a time of year when the monsoon is just beginning to creep into coastal India anyway. Moisture streaming north from Tauktae could also dump feet of snow in the Himalayas.

Tauktae stands to be the strongest storm to impact Gujarat since 1998, when at least 4,000 were killed by a Category 3 cyclone on June 9.


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