Explained: Why do we name Cyclones? Behind the Baptism of misery-laden tropical storms

Cyclone Tauktae
An unusually powerful tropical cyclone named Tauktae struck the Indian state of Gujarat on May 17, 2021. The Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the NASA-NOAA Suomi NPP satellite acquired this natural-color image of the storm a few hours before it made landfall between Porbandar and Mahuva. Photo: NASA Earth Observatory

Did you know Cyclonic storm Tauktae, which hit the western coast recently, is named after an unassuming lizard found in the warm climates of Myanmar?

Like Tauktae, the names of Cyclone’s often spurs curiosity.

Why not a name befitting Tauktae's status of being the strongest tropical cyclone to make landfall in the state of Gujarat since 1998.

Like the Berserker? or the Nidar?

The last cyclone to hit the Gujarat coast (in 1998) was named the ever-logical '1998 Gujarat cyclone'. Why not retain the same format?

As severe cyclonic storm Yaas lashed the eastern coast of India and brought with it a spell of heavy rain, high-speed winds and unaccounted misery, these questions are doing the rounds again. Why Tauktae? Why Yaas? Why do cyclones have names at all? Onmanorama dives deep to find answers to some frequently asked questions.

What is a cyclonic storm?

A cyclonic storm is an intense circular storm that originates over warm tropical oceans. It is characterised by low atmospheric pressure, high winds, and heavy rain.

Why do cyclones have names at all?

Cyclones are given names to help with the identification of tropical storms in warnings given by authorities.

It aids in disaster preparedness and helps the media to disseminate information. In active ocean basins, the likelihood of simultaneous cyclones are high and hence naming is essential to differentiate them and conduct studies.

Future references also benefit when cyclones are named.

History of naming cyclones

The history of naming cyclones dates back to the early 19th century. Storms were named after the places they hit or the year of their occurrence.

Sometimes they were even given very arbitrary names – for instance, a storm over the Atlantic in 1842 was known as Antje's Hurricane because it ripped off the mast of a boat named Antje.

The practice of naming tropical cyclones is said to be initiated by well-known meteorologist Clement Wragge during the late 19th century.

This system was adopted by western meteorologists in the 20th century. They used common feminine names for ease of identifying when there were multiple systems over a particular ocean basin.

However, protests over the seemingly gender-biased system saw it abolished in 2000.

There were also concerns from certain parts of the world about using European and American names.

The modern method

It was in 2000, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) agreed to start assigning names for cyclones over the North Indian Ocean using a list of names suggested by the countries surrounding the ocean basin.

North Indian Ocean, in meteorological parlance, broadly includes the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal.

There are six Regional Specialised Meteorological Centres (RSMC) and five regional Tropical Cyclone Warning Centres in the world. These monitor cyclogenesis, or evolution of a cyclone, issue advisories and name these formations in nine ocean basins.

The India Meteorological Department (IMD) is one of these centres. It has assigned 13 countries from the rim of the Indian Ocean to name the cyclones in the North Indian Ocean.

The thirteen countries are India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Pakistan, the Maldives, Oman, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

In 2020, each country suggested 13 names to make up a list of 169 cyclone names.

Are there any criteria for naming cyclones?

Of course. Like most things, the names of cyclones must also follow a set of rules.

The names suggested by the thirteen countries should be politically and culturally neutral. It should not be rude or cruel.

And equally important is it must be short and easy to pronounce.

The maximum permissible length of the cyclone names is eight letters.

Cyclone Yaas got its name from Oman. The word has its origin in the Persian language and means the flower jasmine in English.

Cyclone, Hurricane, Typhoon – are they all the same?

Yes, tropical storms are named differently depending on the part of the world from where it emerges and is likely to impact. 

In the Indian Ocean, these storms are called cyclones, while in the Atlantic and Pacific ocean, they are called hurricanes and typhoons respectively.

Why are some hurricane names retired?

The names of storms (hurricanes) from the Atlantic and Pacific basin are reused every six years.

However, if a storm is so deadly or costly and if the use of the name would be insensitive or confusing in future, then it is retired.

As per the WMO records, infamous storm names such as Mangkhut (the Philippines, 2018), Irma and Maria (the Caribbean, 2017), Haiyan (the Philippines, 2013), Sandy (the US, 2012), Katrina (the US, 2005), Mitch (Honduras, 1998) and Tracy (Darwin, 1974) are some of the retired hurricane names.

Why are cyclones becoming frequent in the Indian Ocean?

The Indian peninsula has faced 170 storms since 1970, which is the fourth highest after the US (574), the Philippines (330) and China (305) during the period.

According to meteorologists, the north coast of the Bay of Bengal is more prone to catastrophic surges than any region on the Earth.

In March 2020, Cyclone Amphan, considered the first super cyclone to form in the Bay of Bengal since 1999, devastated West Bengal, killing hundreds.

In 2019, Cyclone Fani, formed in the Bay of Bengal, hit Orissa, causing immense damage to life and property.

Cyclones here have been attributed to low air pressure. 

According to weather experts, the high sea temperatures in the warm Bay of Bengal is a major reason for strong cyclones.

In the last four years, the Bay alone has seen at least 12 cyclonic storms.

The most devastating one in history, Bhola in 1970, killed over five lakh in Bangladesh and West Bengal. One of the most recent ones, Nargis, which hit Myanmar in 2008, was the fifth deadliest cyclone in history.

What next?

The next cyclone in the North Indian Ocean region will be named Gulab, a name suggested by Pakistan. This will be followed by Shaheen, assigned by Qatar.

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