People on the main island of Japan are preparing to get hit by the strongest cyclone the Western Pacific has seen in the 2014 season: Typhoon Neoguri. It has already passed over Okinawa, and its 190 kilometer per hour (118 mh) gusts left widespread damage and at least one person dead.
The good news is that it’s drawing in dry air, which is weakening the system; cyclones like this need warm moisture for power. As I write this, its sustained winds are clocked at about 105 kph (66 mph), still very strong. The size of the typhoon is incredible; it's easily thousands of kilometers across. Evacuations have been advised for hundreds of thousands of people in Japan, and tens of thousands are without power.
Over the past day astronauts on board the International Space Station have passed over the typhoon, and they have taken astonishing pictures of the storm system. As always, pictures like these are amazingly beautiful, but never doubt for a second that what you are seeing is as destructive and dangerous as it is awe-inspiring and lovely.
From a Distance
As the ISS approaches the storm, Neoguri is seen from thousands of kilometers away on the limb of the Earth. As astronaut Alexander Gerst exclaimed, “The #SuperTyphoonNeoguri did not even fit in our fisheye lens view. I have never seen anything like this.”
As the station passed over the outskirts of the typhoon, the spiral “feeder bands” were prominent. These are squalls of rain showers fed by warm ocean water, and can get very well-defined as the storm gets stronger. The long, thin streamers pointing away from the center are cirrus outflow clouds, well above the spiral bands and moving outward. Note the Russian spacecraft in the foreground, used to transport astronauts and supplies to and from the ISS.
Another, slightly different view of the feeder bands shows massive convective storms along them, where warm air rises to form giant cumulonimbus clouds (towering columns shaped like cauliflower). Although the physics is very different, the similarity to the arms of a spiral galaxy is striking.
Down the Eye
By an orbital coincidence, the space station passed directly over the eye of the typhoon, where the air pressure is lowest. Warm air near the ocean surface from outside the eye wall moves inward and upward, spreading out over the top of the typhoon. Inside the eye air is dropping down, where it dries out and becomes clear. It’s relatively calm inside the eye, with the fiercest winds in the eye wall.
The Eye of the Storm
A closer view of the eye shows details and shadows inside. Gerst estimates the size to be 65 kilometers (40 miles) in diameter.
As the ISS moved on, astronauts got an oblique view of the eye. This makes depth more obvious and the vertical structures in the inner feeder bands and eye wall easier to see.
NASA’s Aqua satellite took this jaw-dropping shot of the typhoon on July 8, 2014, at 05:00 UTC. To the left of the eye is the coast of China, and the island of Taiwan is to the eye's lower left. The sheer size of the typhoon is amazing.
The Path of Neoguri
The European Meteosat-7 and Japan Meteorological Agency MT-SAT satellites took infrared images that were mapped onto NASA's Blue Marble Next Generation ground map to create a time-lapse animation of the path of Neoguri over the course of July 4 to July 8, 2014.
The latest satellite images can be found at the Japan Meteorological Agency, and updates at Weather Underground. For more information on Twitter, follow astronauts Reid Wiseman and Alexander Gerst, the EUMETSAT group, and NASAGoddardPix.
For everyone in Japan, please stay safe.