Fiji is more known for tropical beaches and expensive bottled water than tropical cyclones. Yet Cyclone Winston is bearing down on the main island, and it could go down in the record books.

The strength of Winston coupled with its quirky track aimed at the heart of Fiji could make this one of the most destructive storms on record to hit the island chain.

Cyclone Winston is a very strong storm that’s taken a very strange trip. The Naval Research Laboratory estimates that Winston had sustained winds at up to 166 mph as of very early Saturday morning, local time. That makes it a strong Category 5 storm in the hours before it makes landfall in Fiji, the strongest storm on record to approach the island nation's capital. Wind gusts are even higher, with some satellite estimates pegging them at up to 195 mph.

Cyclone Winston JTWC

Cyclone Winston's forecast track and intensity.

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The storm is expected to hit Viti Levu, Fiji’s most populous island and home to Suva, the nation’s capital. That puts 600,000 people and lots of infrastructure in harm’s way. But the risk of major damage is even greater because Winston’s track to Fiji has taken a bizarre course that puts the people least used to cyclones in the face of the worst impacts.

 

 

Winston cruised through the South Pacific moving west to east. It clipped Tonga — an island nation about 500 miles southeast of Fiji — as a Category 2 storm and kept heading east. However, it made a sudden about face earlier this week and started making a beeline straight back toward Fiji, intensifying as it moved over warmer than normal waters.

The west-to-east-to-west track is exceedingly rare in the area around Fiji.

“In the specific case of Winston and Fiji, there does not appear to be much precedent for the islands taking a direct impact from a cyclone moving in from the east,” Steven Bowen, a meteorologist at reinsurance company Aon Benfield, said.

The track and intensity mean Winston could cause major damage, especially in areas where people aren’t used to cyclones. Since 1972, a dozen cyclones have passed within 100 miles of Suva, all of which have arrived from the west. The last one was Cyclone Evan, which passed just off Viti Levu’s west coast in December 2012.

None have made direct landfall in Suva, though resorts on the other side of Fiji have felt their brunt, and none have been Category 5 storms — those with winds greater than 155 mph — on the Saffir Simpson scale.

 

 

There are some indications that because people on the eastern side of Fiji aren’t used to seeing cyclones, there’s a lack of preparation for what could be a record-setting storm. The amount of built infrastructure in Winston’s potential path could also make this storm one of the most costly in Fiji’s history.

Bowen said it’s hard to estimate damage because the track could shift before landfall, but if the storm maintains its course, “I would expect economic damages to be pretty substantial for Fiji and end up as one of the costliest tropical cyclones on record in the region.”

El Niño favors tropical cyclones in the region. Last fall, New Zealand’s meteorological agency forecast increased risk for tropical cyclones around Fiji and other parts of the South Pacific. The big driver for the increased risk is this year’s strong El Niño.

As of last week, Fiji was right in the middle of the warmest waters associated with El Niño. Ocean temperatures were around 86°F. That’s about 3.6°F above normal for this time of year and also the prime warmth needed for rapid cyclone intensification. Climate change is also fueling warmer waters around the globe.

John Allen, an associate research scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, said while it’s difficult to attribute Winston’s Category-5 level strength and longevity directly to El Niño, it certainly fits a pattern of what you would expect in an El Niño year.