Super Typhoon Yutu hitting the Northern Mariana Islands. (Colorado State/RAMMB)

Editor’s note: This story was last updated late Wednesday morning when the typhoon was passing directly over the Northern Mariana Islands. For news on the aftermath of the storm, see: Extreme Category 5 Typhoon Yutu makes a devastating landfall in Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory

The planet’s strongest storm so far this year is unleashing a likely catastrophic blow to U.S. islands in the western Pacific Ocean.

Super Typhoon Yutu, with sustained winds of 180 mph, is on a trek through the Northern Mariana Islands. The storm is roaring across the U.S. islands of Saipan and Tinian, part of the island chain, and will become one of the most intense storms on record to hit U.S. soil.

The super typhoon has the strength equivalent to a high-end Category 5 hurricane. Meteorologist Ryan Maue of WeatherModels.com tweeted that the storm would be a “Category 6 if [the] Atlantic scale was extrapolated.”

If the storm, tied with Super Typhoon Mangkhut as 2018′s strongest on Earth, strengthens further, it will rank among the most intense storms ever recorded. “This is an historically significant event,” tweeted Michael Lowry, a hurricane specialist with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Although the western Pacific is where the world’s most powerful tropical cyclones tend to form, Yutu’s strength is likely to be unprecedented in modern history for the Northern Mariana Islands. The islands are home to slightly more than 50,000 people, most of whom live on the largest, northernmost island of Saipan.

In Saipan, wind gusts to hurricane force had already been recorded Tuesday, and much worse will move through as the eye of the storm passes. Gusts could top 200 mph.

A terrifying, grating wind could be heard in audio of a live EarthCam broadcasting from the island. As the storm approached Saipan, the pressure was plummeting at an astonishing rate.

The islands of Tinian and Saipan are taking the eyewall, which is typically where a storm’s most severe conditions are found, of the right-front quadrant of Yutu. Extreme destruction and suffering in both the short and long term should be anticipated in these areas.

The National Weather Service’s advisory for the islands conveyed a dire message, warning of “devastating damage” from the “collapse of residential structures,” partial or total destruction of industrial and apartment buildings, and loss of water and electricity for days to weeks.

In addition to winds that will flatten structures and forests, a storm surge as high as 20 feet is possible in the hardest-hit coastal locations. Storm surge acts as a storm-driven tsunami, and the 20 feet of surge doesn’t count battering waves. Rainfall approaching or surpassing one foot is likely to lead to freshwater flooding and landslides.

It’s a classic and absolutely textbook storm on satellite, resembling a buzz saw. You don’t see them much more intense.

After passing the Mariana Islands, Yutu is likely to maintain an intensity close to its peak for the next day or two before slowly weakening as it moves into the Philippine Sea. Models are mixed on whether Yutu will strike more land at that point. The Philippines to Japan should certainly keep an eye out.