NewsMarch 27, 2015

Satellites Show Vanuatu's Scars From Cyclone Pam

Brian Kahn

By Brian Kahn

Follow @blkahn

Cyclone Pam ripped through the small island nation of Vanuatu earlier this month, leaving behind scenes of utter devastation. 

Images on the ground have captured the carnage of houses and trees, as well as the signs of cleanup underway. Before and after Landsat satellite images released by NASA Earth Observatory on Friday show the big picture of the winds' impact on the tiny South Pacific nation, including the island that bore the brunt of Pam's fury.

Before and after images of Erromango.
Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

An analysis of satellite and modeled data show that Pam was a Category 5 storm, with sustained winds in excess of 157 mph. The island of Erromango bore the brunt of Pam's fury with wind gusts estimated at up to 200 mph according to Capital Weather Gang. Tanna — an island to the south of Erromango — fared only slightly better, with 160 mph wind gusts at their peak, though they still managed to damage or destroy an estimated 80 percent of the structures on the island that's home to 30,000.

Landsat imagery reveal the stark changes Pam has wrought on the islands' formerly green hillsides. In particular, windward sides of the islands have been turned to a dingy brown as foliage was ripped off trees and large swaths of forests were overturned. The leeward side of the island and the valleys tucked away from the storm appear to be in slightly better shape, but Vanuatu has a long process of rebuilding ahead.

Before and after images of Tanna.
Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

According the Food and Agriculture Organization, banana, coconut and other crops have been almost completely destroyed and seed stocks have been depleted. More than 65 percent of Ni-Vanuatu are employed in the agriculture sector, underscoring the problems those losses pose. In the near term, the United Nations reports that 166,000 of Vanuatu's residents — more than half the country's total population — are receiving humanitarian aid in the wake of the cyclone. 

The impact of Pam helped drive home the need to reconcile development, climate change, and disaster risk reduction at the recent round of international disaster talks in Sendai.

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