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Soudelor is strongest typhoon of 2015, spinning toward Okinawa, Taiwan and China

Super Typhoon Soudelor in the northwest Pacific Ocean ballooned from the equivalent of a category 2 to a category 4 in just 12 hours. (University of Wisconsin/CIMSS/JMA/Himawari-8)

After blasting the Pacific island of Saipan with wind gusts close to 100 mph, Super Typhoon Soudelor is taking aim at Taiwan and China, now the equivalent of a category 5 hurricane with wind speeds of 178 mph, and the strongest tropical cyclone yet in 2015.

The powerful cyclone was tiny in size as it crossed Saipan, population 48,000 in the Northern Mariana Islands. The eye of Soudelor was just four miles wide as it made landfall as a category 2 with sustained winds of 105 mph. Weather Underground’s Bob Hensen says that Soudelor was “among the smallest eyes and eyewalls observed anywhere as a tropical cyclone was making landfall.” But given its small size, satellite imagery may not have been sufficient to convey just how strong the typhoon was as it passed over Saipan.

With 350 people in shelters, Saipan has declared a “state of disaster and significant emergency,” reports the Pacific Daily News. “In just about three hours, Typhoon Soudelor—named after a legendary Pohnpeian chief—left behind a devastated wasteland of wrecked homes, fallen electric posts, uprooted trees, vegetation shorn of their leaves, and impassable roadways,” reports the Saipan Tribune. “There were no reports, however, of fatalities.”

Since clearing Saipan, Super Typhoon Soudelor has grown in size and intensity, rocketing from a category 2 to 4 in just 12 hours — a period of rapid intensification common in small storms amid very favorable environments. Sea surface temperature is more than warm enough to support a very strong storm, and wind shear, which acts to weaken typhoons and hurricanes, is low.

Super Typhoon Soudelor reached the equivalent of category 5 hurricane status on Monday afternoon, eastern time, with sustained winds of 178 mph. Soudelor is now the strongest tropical cyclone on Earth since Super Typhoon Hagupit in December 2014, which also peaked with winds of 180 mph.

The Joint Typhoon Warning Center is forecasting even more strengthening to wind speeds of 184 mph.

Soudelor will continue to track west-northwest through the Pacific Ocean over the next four days where it will encounter Japan’s southernmost islands in the Okinawa Prefecture. The current track forecast also puts Taiwan in the typhoon’s path, possibly as it’s still a category 3 or 4 with sustained winds of 110 to 135 mph.

Where exactly Soudelor makes landfall next is still an unknown — small variations in the track could lead to very different impacts for the Okinawa Prefecture and Taiwan. The European model is suggesting a track to the south of the Joint Typhoon Warning Center, putting Taiwan at risk for a direct landfall from a super typhoon. The GFS model is suggesting a weaker typhoon with a more northern track, which would spare Taiwan from the most destructive wind speeds.