Just happened to notice over the weekend that the strongest cyclone of the season so far for the southern Indian Ocean — and the largest in nearly a year — had been brushing Madagascar with sustained winds over 100 mph.
This was Cyclone Felleng, and you have NASA to thank for the satellite image above. It shows in outline about a thousand miles of Madagascar’s eastern coastline and also, to the east and still further east, the locations of Reunion Island and Mauritius.
For an even more striking picture, consider this rendering in which color has been added to a satellite imaging of temperatures in the cyclone as measured with infrared sensing. Coolest temps are at the violet end of the spectrum, warmest at the red end. Madagascar’s northern outline is faintly visible to the lower left.
At the point this image was made, Felleng had risen from the sea surface to an altitude of roughly 170,000 feet.
How high is that? According to Larry O’Hanlon, a writer at discovery.com, whose report on on the storm was the first to catch my eye:
That’s 32 miles (52 km) up, or almost five times higher than commercial airliners fly. It’s no wonder such storms have a big effects on the stratosphere. They are, quite literally, the Earth’s “up” escalator from the troposphere (where the weather is and we live) into the stratosphere, as it was explained to me a few years back by one of NASA’s atmospheric physicists.
It’s via these tropical storms that man-made pollutants travel, and eventually move towards the poles and do things like destroy the ozone layer.
Bigger than Katrina, Sandy, Isaac
The cyclone was rated at the equivalent of a Category 4 hurricane, but because most of its force was spent along a track over ocean, between Madagascar and Reunion Island, the damage to people and settled places was mercifully slight. (Comparisons: Katrina was rated as a Category 3 hurricane at landfall in Louisiana; Sandy never rose above Category 2, and Hurricane Isaac was Category 1.)
According to an Agence France-Presse report at globalpost.com, there were just five fatalities attributed to Felleng despite the ferocious winds and the heavy flooding that followed rainfall as heavy as two inches per hour.
And for that the people of Madagascar can thank ample advance warning issued on the basis of forecasts from the Joint Typhoon Warning Center, an operation of the U.S. Navy and Air Force that monitors severe weather over the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
As of dinnertime Sunday, JTWC had issued its last advisories on Felleng, with the storm expected to dissipate over open water southeast of Madagascar by midweek.
You know, this was no Katrina or Sandy or even Isaac in its impact, but still I was puzzled to find virtually no mention of it in the U.S. press — apart from the science-oriented publications like discovery.com, ouramazingplanet.com and phys.org.
Maybe my half-hour of online searching wasn’t enough. Or maybe, despite our growing awareness that global warming is raising the ferocity and frequency of the world’s worst weather, this storm just wasn’t mainstream news by today’s standards.
But I thought it was kind of interesting. And there are lots more images here.
Measuring environmental indifference
Speaking of mainstream news standards nowadays, here are some fresh statistics on how little attention the major U.S. media outlets are paying to environmental news generally:
- Environmental subjects earned just 1.2 percent of the front-page newspaper headlines (or their equivalent placement in other media) during a 15-month study period ending last May.
- An analysis of regularly scheduled newscasts by ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox News found just six stories about fracking, 28 about environmental/health subjects and 0 — that’s a zero — about deforestation.
- On the positive side, those newscasts included 244 stories about climate change. But that’s a little less impressive when laid alongside coverage of LeBron James (348 stories), Donald Trump and “Dancing With the Stars” (235 combined). On average, entertainment and celebrity stories got more than three times as much coverage as environmental subjects.
- The ratio of crime to environment coverage varied widely, running 69:1 for morning network news, 9:1 for cable news, 6:1 for online news and 5:1 for evening network news.
This is not just a problem of cutbacks in smaller media companies. In fact, as a group, local newspapers gave about three times as much coverage to environmental subjects as “nationally focused news organizations.”
Among national news outlets, the Huffington Post’s Green section ranked highest and Fox outdistanced the other TV networks. However, the report notes that a good share of the Huffington Post coverage is curated from other sources and that much of the Fox coverage is devoted to covering climate-change denial (quantifying differences in originality and quality were beyond the scope of this analysis).
Those are just my top takeaways from reading the analysis, which was prepared by serious-minded journalists engaged in the Project for Improved Environmental Coverage and is available in full here.
The methodology is explained there in greater detail, but the main thing to know is that that this analysis draws on the data assembled by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism for its weekly News Coverage Index.
So the work ain’t sloppy, though it has some inherent limits, one being the lack of historical comparisons — this year’s report is the first benchmark in what is planned as an annual series.