The Japanese weather satellite Himawari-8 captured Vongfong churning closer to the Philippines on May 13, 2020. (RAMMB/CIRA)

Typhoon Vongfong is the first named storm of the 2020 West Pacific typhoon season, but it already has the makings of a potentially significant storm. The Philippines is bracing for a close shave or direct hit later this week as the intensifying system churns ominously closer to the archipelago.

The 2020 West Pacific typhoon season began relatively quietly, but things changed quickly Sunday into Monday when an area of low pressure meandering well to the east of Mindanao inched its way toward tropical depression status. It was declared a tropical storm on Monday local time, named “Ambo” by the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA), and “Vongfong” by the Japan Meteorological Agency.

According to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JTWC), Vongfong currently stands at Category 3 status, with maximum sustained winds of 120 mph and gusts to 150 mph. It’s moving to the west-northwest at 10 mph. Typhoon Vongfong has been undergoing rapid intensification and may outpace forecasts as its intensity ramps up.

Further intensification likely

Satellite imagery of Vongfong early Wednesday revealed the bubbling up of “hot towers,” or strong thunderstorms indicative of rapidly rising air. At the same time, a blossoming of thunderstorm activity, illustrated by extremely tall, cold cloud tops, began to organize into a ring around the center. In addition, intermittent clearing at the storm’s center began to be visible as an eye emerged.

The Joint Typhoon Warning Center wrote Wednesday that “the environment remains very favorable for additional rapid intensification,” with toasty water temperatures and favorable upper-level winds making for an atmospheric powder keg that the typhoon could very well take advantage of.

Studies have shown increases in the occurrence of rapidly intensifying storms in some parts of the world, defined as an increase in a storm’s maximum sustained winds of 35 mph or greater in 24 hours. One study of rapid intensification in the Atlantic that was published last year found that this is occurring due to climate change-induced changes in the ocean and atmosphere.

Vongfong’s eye briefly clouded over early Wednesday U.S. time, signaling a short pause in intensification. However, tropical cyclones usually strengthen in a sort of stair-step pattern, with spurts of intensification interspersed with periodic pauses as the storm reshuffles and organizes again. The JTWC anticipates that the typhoon may strengthen further in the days ahead and may peak as a Category 3 storm. Some computer models suggest it could reach the equivalent of Category 4 intensity.

Impacts to land are imminent

The JTWC expects Typhoon Vongfong to continue at Category 3 strength by Thursday afternoon or evening local time. During this time frame, Vongfong should track northwest, skimming the Philippines’ eastern Visayas and the Bicol region.

That probably means a very close shave of the western eyewall on the eastern shores of the island of Samar, where winds ranging from tropical storm to hurricane force and a storm surge of several feet are likely.

It’s important to note that Vongfong is a rather small and tightly packed storm, meaning that any westward shift of its track could bring a significant increase in realized impacts. Up to half a foot of rainfall is possible.

The Joint Typhoon Warning Center's forecast for Vongfong. Note that wind speeds are provided in knots. (JTWC)

As it is, the predicted path takes Vongfong directly over the Philippine island of Catanduanes, home to about a quarter-million people. Sustained winds of 120 mph are possible if the eyewall passes overhead — as is currently forecast — along with 6 to 10 inches of rainfall. Localized amounts close to a foot are possible in the island’s hilly terrain.

A slight weakening of the system is possible after its interaction with the island, but the JTWC notes that could be “offset by continued favorable conditions” for Vongfong to maintain its intensity.

A second strike in Luzon

From there, the forecast calls for Vongfong to continue its northwestward trek through the Philippine Sea east of Lamon Bay. On Saturday afternoon, current projections take a low-end Category 2 Vongfong into Luzon, near the Casiguron Sound.

Mountainous terrain on the island’s southeastern side will exacerbate wind and heavy rain impacts, with potential flooding and mudslides.

It’s far too early to speculate what may transpire thereafter, but large-scale weather patterns favor Vongfong continuing to maintain strength and passing well to the east of Japan while feeding off the lukewarm waters of the Kuroshio Current.

After impacting the Philippines, indications suggest, as implied by these weather models, that Vongfong should curve out to sea. (Tropical Tidbits)

The Philippines is no stranger to tropical cyclones; in fact, the natural-disaster-prone country sees about 20 such storms pass near it every year, give or take.

On Nov. 7 and 8, 2013, Super Typhoon Haiyan claimed more than 6,000 lives, making landfall near the city of Tacloban, with winds of 190 mph. It also was noted as the most intense landfalling tropical cyclone on record globally.

Andrew Freedman contributed reporting.