The world is full of powerful natural phenomena, and when they cause devastation, destruction, and death, they are referred to as natural disasters. Working out which one is the most “powerful”, though, is fraught with difficulty.
Essentially, natural disasters can be measured in two basic ways – in terms of the energy they release, and in terms of the amount of life they kill off. For now, let’s look at the former, and see how the most extraordinary natural occurrences on our beautiful, dangerous world stack up.
Unfortunately, estimating the power of prehistoric hurricanes using the geological record is too imprecise at present, so instead let’s look at the most powerful hurricane (or “typhoon” or “tropical cyclone”) in human history.
One candidate is considered to be Typhoon Haiyan, which made landfall in the Philippines in 2013 with winds of up to 314 kilometers per hour (195 miles per hour). In the Western Hemisphere, the most powerful is often thought to be Hurricane Patricia, which slammed into western Mexico in 2015 with winds peaking at 325 kilometers per hour (202 miles per hour).
Although Patricia wins this round, Weather Underground points out that Super Typhoon Nancy in 1961, with 346 kilometers per hour (215 miles per hour) peak wind speeds, still holds the all-time record – but how does this translate to power? One estimate by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) calculates that the average unleashes 600 trillion joules per second in energy in cloud/rain formation alone, with an additional 1.5 trillion being released as kinetic energy in its powerful winds.
These three hurricanes, therefore, had powers at least equivalent to several hundreds of trillion joules per second, which is a heck of a lot. In fact, the average hurricane produces energy equivalent to perhaps thousands of trillions of lightning strikes per second.
Typhoon Maysak, as seen from the International Space Station. ESA/NASA