How does human activity contribute to the impact of typhoons?

Did you know the Philippines experiences more than 20 typhoons each year? 

Although they are often called ‘natural disasters’, they may be better labelled as ‘natural phenomena’ since they are part of the regular cycle of seasons in the tropics. Nevertheless, since these storms can have a significant impact on entire ecosystems, Christians have a role in caring for both people and the places they inhabit. 

Few Filipinos will ever forget Super Typhoon Yolanda in 2013 which ripped through the Central Visayas region resulting in more than 6000 deaths, 33 million fallen coconut trees and 1.1 million destroyed houses.1 Despite extensive rebuilding, which OMF had an active role in, the region is still experiencing its effects today.2 

The fact that typhoons strike is not shocking since these are natural occurrences. But the important question is finding out who is affected and how people, including Christians, are mitigating the impact of typhoons. For instance, which populations of people are repeatedly affected by storms? What is the impact on wildlife and the surrounding ecosystem?

The more uncomfortable question to ask is how much human activity has contributed to the impact of natural phenomena. Heavy rains can cause rivers to rise and overflow into towns. Strong winds can knock off roofs and overturn vehicles. But how does human activity contribute to what happens during and after typhoons?

Christmas typhoon

Let’s focus on a marine ecosystem example from one of the hard-hit regions during typhoon season.3 In 2016, Typhoon Nina struck the Bicol region on Christmas day.4 This area is popular with tourists and is also home to a multitude of sea creatures. Most of the local communities residing in this region depend on fishing for their livelihood.

During that typhoon, torrential rain washed chemical fertilizers that farmers had sprayed onto their crops into the surrounding water. This fertilizer runoff caused an algae bloom which fed the larvae of one species of starfish, known as crown-of-thorns or lap’ag in Bicolano.5 The sudden increase of food led to a boom in the lap’ag population, which in turn affected table corals – the preferred diet of lap’ag. Coral reefs which normally only have a few lap’ag suddenly spiked to the hundreds, which upset the delicate balance of the ecosystem.

To complicate matters, two natural predators of the lap’ag had already been steadily in decline: the bumphead parrotfish due to human consumption, and the giant triton due to tourists collecting its shell. With fewer natural predators and a spike in their food supply, the lap’ag systematically ate through entire coral reefs. 

Since corals are keystone species, their disappearance greatly affected fish populations and other marine life in the area.6 And with far fewer fish, the livelihood of local fishermen was also affected. 

This example shows how the impact of Typhoon Nina was felt by both people and the places they live. Commercial farming and human consumption had a cascading effect on marine life and fishermen when a strong typhoon struck. We see here how human activity can intensify the impact of natural phenomena.

While we cannot stop typhoons, Christians should recognize how our choices, and sometimes shortcuts, can have devastating consequences – even to our witness. As such, our response in typhoon-prone regions should include paying attention to the seasonality of storms and finding ways to mitigate their impact on all of life.

Our Christian witness must include a concern for the well-being of both people and the places they live. As God’s created beings, the physical cannot be separated from the spiritual. Thus, our care must be for the whole person, and not just for human life but also for non-human life. After all, Jesus is Lord of all creation. 

How might our care for God’s creation change as we see more of God’s creation?

Jasmine Kwong
OMF Creation Care Advocate

Follow @omf.creationcare on Facebook or Instagram for more insights and reflections on this topic.

3 This example was shared by Bryan Martin, founder of Reefs for Life – a Christian NGO committed to marine conservation and working alongside coastal fishing communities
5 Algae bloom = out-of-control algae growth which removes oxygen from water needed to sustain plant and animal life
6 Keystone species = a plant or animal which is critical to the survival of other species in an ecosystem