Waves from Typhoon Nanmadol break along the coast in Izumi, Kagoshima prefecture on September 18, 2022. Credit: Yuichi Yamazaki via Getty Images

By Levi Beckett

On the island of Guam, some 1,600 miles off the coast of Japan, the sky looked clear, the water looked safe, and I had just bought a snorkel. We got lost several times on the road to the beach and ended up not quite where we intended. But the locals were swimming just off the shore, so I got into the water with a few others. All Illinois natives, we reveled in the unfamiliar wonders of the ocean. We floated on top of salt water without moving and let the waves carry us into the air like a roller coaster, always depositing us back safely near the shore.

As we ventured farther out, I was surprised to feel the water tug me toward the incredible expanse that was bigger than I was comfortable comprehending. I avoided looking at the vast horizon. The waves got just a little taller every few minutes, and the pull became stronger. Still, I didn’t leave the water; if the waves got too high, I could just go back. By the time I realized how helpless I was, I was being dragged underwater by an undertow that snuck beneath me like a snake. When I was able to force my head above water again, the shore was considerably farther away.

In September 2022, Super Typhoon Nanmadol gathered in the Pacific Ocean halfway between Tokyo and Guam. It began as a low rumbling of thunderstorms scattered across the water. The storms coagulated in the Pacific sky and then slammed into the coast of Japan. With heat energy ripped from the sea surface, the storm system exploded in size, leaving a trail of eerily frigid ocean in its wake. Winds over 185 kph whipped across Japan’s heavily populated coastline. Nanmadol had abruptly metastasized across a warming ocean and ultimately became one of the strongest typhoons ever recorded in Japan, forcing millions to evacuate and wreaking over $1 billion of damage.

A satellite photo of Typhoon Nanmadol hitting the southern tip of Japan. Credit: European Union via Wikimedia Commons

The entire ocean rocks when a hurricane forms. During Typhoon Nanmadol, 60-foot waves punished slow-moving animals and shellfish beds in the Pacific Ocean. These creatures could not survive the rapidly changing salinity and temperature and the brutal undertow. Sharks and whales fled the apocalyptic conditions, while most coral reefs were badly damaged or destroyed. Two Japanese citizens died and about 90 others were injured in the destruction. One man was submerged in his car while sitting in a parking lot, waiting for the storm to pass. Another was caught in a landslide and never came home.

Hurricanes gain power in warmer atmospheres. Water expands as it gets warmer, which produces more moisture in the air. The result is an increase in rainfall and a higher frequency of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes. Rising sea levels and melting glaciers add even more fuel to storm surges and floods. A warming climate, influenced directly by human behavior, also contributes to much stronger tropical storm winds, causing hurricanes to intensify faster and driving powerful waves against vulnerable coastlines.

Decades ago, this size and severity of tropical storm activity did not exist. Simple math dictates that a 1,000-year flood has a 0.1 percent chance of occurring every year, but in just five months of 2016, four of these floods racked Texas, West Virginia, Maryland, and Louisiana. Heavy rains today are estimated to dump 71% more rainfall onto the mid-Atlantic and northeastern United States than they did just 60 years ago. While natural forces create varying degrees of storm and flooding intensity, man-made climate change exacerbates these weather disasters.

Hurricane Katrina, one of the most costly tropical storms in recent history, caused massive damage not only because of its severity, but because it made landfall on one of the most economically valuable coasts in the country. Shifting housing prices and migration in response to rising sea levels, as well as sheer destruction in high-value areas, will rise alongside sea surface temperatures. One Yale study estimates that storm damages will increase by 0.08% of GDP annually due to rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

Storms are increasing in frequency as well as size. The number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes has doubled since the 1980s. Hurricane Harvey, which made landfall in Texas in 2017, broke records with a 60-inch rainfall. Scientists estimate that the warming climate increased this rainfall by 15-38%. Storm surges, possibly the greatest danger for human lives during a hurricane, also drastically increase in warmer waters. Hurricane Ian, which flooded Fort Myers, Fla., in 2022, drowned 30 people with a surge of 15 feet. Though restored wetlands can help alleviate the brutality of these storms, a significant reduction in global carbon dioxide emissions and methane pollution is the only way to properly protect humanity from this worldwide onslaught of extreme weather.

Then there’s El Niño, generated by warmer sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, resulting in more extreme rainfall and a higher likelihood of hurricanes, floods, and landslides in some regions, and crippling drought in others. In the past 100 years, the periodic El Niño phenomenon has turned monstrous as sea surface temperatures artificially rise. A record-breaking Texas flood in May 2015 was driven by El Niño conditions, as was Nanmadol, a typhoon so powerful that a U of I student was left flailing in the ocean hundreds of miles from the eye of the storm.

In the blink of an eye, the waves had become goliath. I was thrown onto rocks, bloodying my feet and legs while I turned somersaults in the water. I couldn’t tell where the ocean stopped and I began. My stomach churned with the waves. The skin holding my body together suddenly felt thin and fragile, barely an afterthought to the power of the sea. All I knew was I wanted air. I didn’t know which way was up, but I kept clawing for that precious air, praying I was going the right way. I remember the water was salty and burned my throat. How much I swallowed I don’t know. When I finally found the surface again, I screamed out. The waves were too high to see anything around me, and my shouts were muffled by the walls of water. A mountain of ocean surrounded me. Panic coursing through my veins, I tried to float on my back until the waves subsided.

As I watched the indomitable height of a wave coming to force me under again, I suddenly understood myself as never before. I was a collection of molecules that happened to organize into a person-shape, a monkey descendant that could easily be scrubbed away like the dinosaurs. I thought about the flat plains of the American Midwest, and about the fireflies I used to see during the summer nights of my childhood. I thought about my mom and I silently apologized to her. I understood, probably for the first time, that I am no different from every person who has died before me.

The waves relaxed. I was exhausted, but an ancient instinct to hack through the water and rescue myself from drowning drove me on, no matter how useless my limbs felt. It took about an hour to swim back to safety. I arrived on the shore shaking, bleeding, and vomiting. Having been stripped down to my barest animal instincts, I felt simultaneously like a monkey unadapted to swimming and like Adam from the Bible, exiled from the garden.

As a Midwest native, the danger of a hurricane had been distant to me before I nearly drowned in one. But the economic damage dealt by hurricanes will soon be brought home to all of us. Long-term data on tropical storms is restricted to the availability of satellites, which only came about 60 years ago. But it is undeniable that the annual number of hurricanes has increased, especially since 1980. The massive storm surges that typically accompany tropical storms are a powerful threat to major economic centers with low elevations. In the United States alone, the coasts of Miami, New Orleans, Houston, and Tampa are hugely vulnerable. Hurricane Katrina was only the beginning.

Looking back, it was my arrogance that carried me out to sea. Ego is an ocean of another sort. I’m sure that for those who study the forces of nature, the power of a super typhoon, the oceans, and climate change is obvious. But for the rest of us living in a hyper-artificial society, the illusion of individual agency is comforting and becomes the unquestioned norm, as invisible as a virus or a microplastic particle or the hurricane winds that nearly killed me back in 2022.

The Earth doesn’t recognize self-made billionaires or kings. That fateful day off Guam, it also didn’t recognize an Illinois kid who had disregarded the ocean’s power and just wanted his mom. The damage of climate change already disproportionately affects people of lower income and poorer countries. But no one is immune to a super typhoon, and eventually, if there is not a significant effort to reduce global warming, we’ll all be equal. Death keeps no record of wrongs. It has no marketplace or meritocracy to distribute suffering fairly. All we can do in the face of it is reach out to each other, and be there when someone reaches out to us. To strive to save ourselves and each other, no matter how hopeless it feels.

About the Author …

Levi Beckett completed his Bachelor of Science in media and cinema studies with a minor in political science in December 2023. While an undergrad, he was an active member of ecological restoration RSO Red Bison and a marketing intern with the University of Illinois Foundation. He is passionate about conservation and currently seeks a career in non-profit communication. He maintains a website at lkbeckett25.wixsite.com/levi-beckett.

This article was the memoir category winner in the 2023 Janelle Joseph Environmental Writing Contest.