Update: How Big Was Haiyan, Then?

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As we all try and wrap our brains around the magnitude and severity of super typhoon Haiyan, the Red Cross shared a shocking map over Haiyan overlaid on top of the United States and was quickly "debunked" by The New Republic. So who's right? 

Update, 5:35 p.m.: The Red Cross has issued a correction, via The New Republic.

In the process of making the rest of our maps for our operations in the Philippines, we made a mistake with this one and it was not to scale. We always strive to provide the most accurate information possible and we missed the mark with this one-literally.

But that still doesn't answer the question: How big was the storm?

The Map:

Okay, so here's the map in question. Look at that ugly angry beast in the middle of America and think of what it could do to a city like St. Louis, Chicago, New York, and well, the state of Oklahoma:

The Debunk:

Not so fast. The New Republic's Nate Cohn believes this shocking image is false and called it a "hoax" — a premise based on the size of the Philippines and the size of the United States. The Philippines is, of course, smaller than the United States, and using satellite imagery (this is a key point), he points out that the storm is only as big as one of the Philippine's islands, which would be tiny compared to the United States:  

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What We Know: 

For starters, there are storms larger than Haiyan — Hurricane Sandy, whose diameter at one point stretched to 943 miles, was one of them. Haiyan was much smaller. Just before landfall, the diameter of the storm clocked in at around 500 miles, CNN reported.

And 500 miles is about the distance of Colorado and Kansas's combined widths:


But we can do better. We found a large format image of the storm from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at the website of the Baltimore Sun

If you look at the Philippines ...

...notice the coastline marked with the arrow. It syncs to a pink outline in the NOAA image, as below.

If we superimpose that storm image over a map of the United States (scaled to image of the Philippines), we get this:

What Cohn focuses on is a satellite image of the storm, showing the clouds and well-formed eye. The NOAA and Red Cross maps show an infrared satellite image, which shows more information about the storm than a picture of the clouds alone provides. It also shows the energy of the storm. (See update below: Cohn's was also an infrared image.) 

But even so, the Red Cross image appears to show a much bigger storm. Here's the same region of the country in the Red Cross map. Note the arrows, depicting regions of more activity.

Now, look at how those arrows correspond to the data on our map.

The energetic swirl at the left of the eye extends into Utah in the Red Cross map. On ours, it doesn't. And here's one more look at Haiyan in comparison to the United States from researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison:

Explaining the Discrepancy:

What we don't know is when the Red Cross storm image was captured. The storm has been larger and smaller than in the image we used, taken on November 6 at a little after 1:00 p.m. And it's up for debate how you define "as big as." Certainly, the image Cohn used shows less information about the storm than the one the Red Cross did. But both, as far as we can tell, are wrong.

Update, 5:45 p.m.: Cohn took issue with our post over Twitter and, then, via email. He noted that he, too, used an infrared image in his post, just a monochromatic one. He also took issue with our noting that the image we used includes more information, though it does: the energy in the storm at various points. (Here's a good explainer on the difference between the two types of image.) 

In his later updates, Cohn endorses an image of the storm superimposed on the United States' coast. It looks an awful lot like our images above. There has been no correction related to his calling the Red Cross image a "hoax."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.