Southern Africa Bore the Brunt of Cyclone Freddy’s 37-Day Wrath. Recovery Is Far From Over

More than 300 people have died across Madagascar, Mozambique and Malawi as of Thursday, with more than 700 injured, 40 missing and 80,000 displaced.

Men carry a coffin during a mass funeral for mudslide victims at Chilobwe townships Naotcha Primary school camp in Blantyre, Malawi, on March 15, 2023. Credit: Amos Gumulira/AFP via Getty Images
Men carry a coffin during a mass funeral for mudslide victims at Chilobwe townships Naotcha Primary school camp in Blantyre, Malawi, on March 15, 2023. Credit: Amos Gumulira/AFP via Getty Images

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Tropical Cyclone Freddy swirled into existence in the Indian Ocean off the northwest coast of Australia, reaching high enough wind speeds to earn its name on Feb. 6. An astonishing 37 days later, it finally dissipated after traveling about 5,000 miles, making landfall three times and killing hundreds of people across Madagascar, Mozambique and Malawi.

“Freddy now holds the world record for ‘accumulated cyclone energy,’ a metric to gauge a cyclone’s strength over time,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tweeted last week.

The post shows chilling footage of the storm barreling past the island of Madagascar before crashing into the southeast coast of Africa, where it hovered over Mozambique and Malawi for days. The video then shows Freddy reversing course and hitting Madagascar again.

The World Meteorological Organization said that Freddy generated about as much accumulated cyclone energy as an average full North Atlantic hurricane season. Think about that. This cyclone produced as much energy as every single named storm combined during an average hurricane season off North America’s Atlantic coast.

In fact, Freddy may have broken several world records, experts said. It could have broken the record for longest-lasting tropical cyclone. Because Freddy weakened below tropical cyclone status at times during its duration, a panel of meteorologists are determining whether it technically surpassed the previous 31-day record set by Hurricane John in 1994. Freddy also appears to have broken the record for most bouts of rapid intensification, meaning a storm’s wind speeds increased by at least 35 miles per hour within 24 hours. Freddy rapidly intensified seven times, beating out several hurricanes that held the previous record of four. The expert panel will officially determine this record as well.

It’s also notable because Freddy is only the fourth named cyclone on record to travel east to west across the Indian Ocean. “No other tropical cyclones observed in this part of the world have taken such a path across the Indian Ocean in the past two decades,” NOAA said in a post.

Whatever its statistics turn out to be, it’s no question that Cyclone Freddy was an exceptionally powerful, long-lasting and devastating storm. And while it has yet to be officially determined if this particular storm has been influenced by climate change, at least some attribution scientists believe it’s a safe bet to assume so.

Friederike Otto, a climate scientist at the Grantham Institute who leads the World Weather Attribution group, told the Associated Press that Freddy parallels several cyclones from last year that the group did determine were made more likely and severe because of global warming, including Batsirai, which devastated Madagascar. “If we did a study on Cyclone Freddy, the findings would be very similar, given the processes leading to the heavy rain in Freddy are very similar to those in Batsirai,” she said.

Attribution science is a tricky effort, but climate experts widely agree that climate change is generally making extreme weather more frequent and intense across the board. Warmer air can hold more moisture, resulting in heavier rain, and warmer ocean waters can supercharge storms with extra energy, making winds fiercer.

It’s not just complex computer models telling researchers this, either. In fact, a study released this week in the journal Nature Water confirmed with satellite data that the warming climate has fueled more intense drought and heavier rainfall globally over the last 20 years, providing what the study’s authors call “indisputable” evidence that human-made emissions are exacerbating extreme weather. “This is an observation,” one of the study’s co-authors told The Washington Post. “It’s actual data.”

As the storm clouds began letting up Wednesday above the southeastern coast of Africa, the devastation from Cyclone Freddy’s weeks-long rampage came into clearer focus. Aid organizations and weather experts warned that the region’s recovery is far from over.

In Madagascar, Mozambique and Malawi, Freddy left a trail of destruction as powerful winds, flash floods and landslides pulverized infrastructure, which continues to delay aid from reaching those in need. As of Thursday, more than 300 people have been reported dead, with more than 700 injured, 40 missing and 80,000 displaced. Ongoing flood risks are also expected to exacerbate cholera outbreaks in Malawi and Mozambique, where more than 3,000 new cases have been recorded in each country over the past week. Aid workers said they expect the overall death toll in the area to climb in the coming days and weeks.

The damage from Freddy will also carry huge costs for the countries impacted. This week, the United Nations released a new report that found that African countries are already spending between 2 percent and 9 percent of their budgets to respond to extreme weather events. The report prompted renewed calls for the world’s richest nations responsible for the majority of emissions driving global warming to compensate developing countries for the climate crisis—something Western countries have promised but failed so far to do.

“Climate change has tremendous impacts in African economies,” Nemera Gebeyehu Mamo, Ethiopia’s planning minister, told the Associated Press in response to the U.N. report. “And climate action is impossible without climate finance.”

More Top Climate News

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Today’s Indicator

64 percent

That’s roughly how much of California is now considered no longer experiencing drought after another atmospheric river inundated the state with heavy rain and snow this week, federal forecasters said. With that precipitation expected to cause flooding, however, it’s not all good news.