Satellites peering down on the Arabian Sea are watching as a hurricane bears down on the coast of Yemen, something never before recorded.

Cyclone Chapala has reached rare heights for a storm in that region of the world, topping out as the second strongest storm in the Arabian Sea by wind speed, and the strongest by a measure that looks at its energy over its lifetime. Those stats have left meteorologists, as well as other officials, apprehensive about the damage that Chapala’s winds and rains could visit on the poor, arid and war-torn country.

Chapala formed on Oct. 28, then strengthened rapidly due to favorable atmospheric conditions that helped bolster convection at the center of the storm and allowed it to take advantage of the extremely warm waters of the Arabian Sea. It topped out with winds of 155 mph on Oct. 30, according to Weather Underground. Those speeds would make it a high-end Category 4 hurricane and the second strongest storm for that area by wind speed, behind 2007’s Cyclone Gonu. (Cyclone, typhoon and hurricane are all different terms for the same phenomena.)


By another measure, Accumulated Cyclone Energy, or ACE, Chapala is the strongest storm on record in the Arabian Sea, with reliable data going back to 1990, according to hurricane researcher Philip Klotzbach of Colorado State University. ACE takes into account a hurricane’s wind speeds over its entire lifetime.

Though it has since weakened, Chapala is still packing hurricane-force winds and is anticipated to make landfall as a hurricane on Tuesday local time.

The forecasted track for Chapala currently has it making landfall to the west of Mukalla. The coastline in this region is mostly sparsely populated, so the closer to the city it hits, the more people that will be affected and the worse the impacts are likely to be.

Forecasters expect significant flooding and mudslides as well as damage to infrastructure, which, in the impoverished country, isn’t built to withstand such forces. The storm threat also comes on top of the current conflict in the country between the Houthi rebels and a Saudi-led coalition fighting on behalf of the president-in-exile. The war has worsened food security in a country where many were already going hungry, and it is possible the storm will exacerbate those issues.

Despite consistently warm waters, tropical cyclones in the Arabian Sea typically don’t reach the higher end of the hurricane scale because winds in the upper atmosphere tend to cut them off. Dry desert air from the Arabian Peninsula also tends to choke developing storms. There is some research, though, that suggests changes in aerosol pollution have allowed more storms to reach higher intensities in this region.

Chapala is unusual, as Arabian Sea storms typically take a more northerly route. Gonu, for example, traveled northward, clipping the coast of Oman before making landfall in Iran. Many storms in the region actually never hit land, instead dissipating at sea.

Yemen has never been hit by anything stronger than a tropical depression in recorded history, though these have still caused considerable damage. In 2008, for example, rains from Tropical Depression Three caused considerable floods that displaced 22,000 people, killed 180 and caused $1 billion in damage.

Forecasts have some parts of Yemen receiving upwards of 24 inches of rain and widespread areas getting 2 to 8 inches. The arid country usually only sees about 4 inches of rain in an entire year.