The Naming of Cyclones

T.S. Eliot said, about the naming of cats:

‘The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games’

The naming of cyclones is surely at least as serious!

We have just been reckoning with the damage caused by Fani. Thanks to the excellent predictions and forecasts, as well as the concerted efforts of government authorities, damage has been minimized. Yet, lives have been lost and there is much rehabilitation to be done. We all need to do our bit.

But why was the cyclone named Fani? Why do cyclones have names at all? Doesn’t it sound a bit like trivializing a serious matter?

Well, no. Cyclones are given names to simplify communications and avoid confusion. It is important for forecasters to keep in touch with each other, and for governments to give information on cyclones to the general public. Since the storms can often last a week or longer, and more than one cyclone can be occurring in the same region at the same time, names can reduce the confusion about what storm is being described. The normal practice is that once storms produce sustained wind speeds of more than 34 knots, names are assigned from predetermined lists depending on which basin they originate.

Every region forms a committee of nations who are more prone to cyclones or hurricanes. For the Indian ocean region, Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Myanmar, Oman, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Thailand form the Committee, and the governing body is the Regional Specialised Meteorological Centre (RCMC), New Delhi. This is the body which assigns names for cyclones originating in our region.

Each nation making up the Committee prepares a list of ten names which they think are suitable to be assigned to a cyclone. Out of each country-list, RSMC selects eight names and prepares eight lists which consist of the names approved by the governing body. The names of cyclones are not allocated in alphabetical order, but rather, the countries are arranged alphabetically, and the names selected from each country in the list, one by one.

Fani is a name contritued by Bangladesh. Names contributed by India are Jal, Agni, Vayu, Akash, Bijli, Lahar, Megh and Sagar.

Starting World War II till about 1979, cyclones were generally named after women. This practice was modified in 1979 by adding men’s names. Now names are by and large not personal names. Most are names of flowers, animals, birds, trees, or even foods, etc, while some are descriptive adjectives.

So at least in this matter, some amount of gender sensitivity has been brought in, and destructive forces are not tagged with exclusively feminine names!


And The Butterfly Flapped its Wings…

Edward Lorenz articulated this metaphor to imply that a small, inconsequential-seeming event can have huge unforeseen effects. He in fact drew the metaphor from weather phenomena, specifically, the details of a tornado (the exact time of formation, the exact path taken) being influenced by minor perturbations such as the flapping of the wings of a distant butterfly several weeks earlier.

Ironically, the cyclone that just struck Orissa and part of Andhra Pradesh coast, and caused heavy damage, is called TITLI—butterfly. Was the agency which names cyclones aware of this?

Anyway, the name is not the point. The damage is. As in the after-math of every disaster, lives and livelihoods have to be restored. And we have to learn from each disaster how to proof ourselves better against future disasters, and how we can handle the relief and rehab phases better.

These lessons are important for us. 87 per cent of India’s land is prone to one or the other kind of disaster—floods, droughts, cyclones, earthquakes etc. India is second among all countries affected by disasters every year. Over 50 million people are affected by disasters every year, and on an average, over 1 million houses damaged.

Cyclone is a natural disaster of meteorological or climatic origin. It is classified as an ‘immediate onset disaster’ (it manifests its complete effects in 1-7 days). The Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea experience about 6-7 per cent of the world’s annual cyclones. The majority occur from October to December, and a smaller number in April-May. Though the percentage of cyclones hitting the Indian Ocean region is low, the wind speeds are moderate and the cyclones are relatively short lived and smaller in size, they cause heavy damage when they strike the coastal areas of Bay of Bengal. This is because the conditions of the region favour huge storm surges. The combination of high astronomical tide, shallow water and the special coastal configuration of north Bay of Bengal result in the generation of devastating storm tides.

These are the natural reasons. But humans have contributed hugely too. The destruction of coastal forests is a major issue. Mangrove tidal forests are natural cyclone barriers and invaluable protectors. But alas, these are disappearing. Rice paddies and prawn farming are cited as some of the reasons for this.

So Titli came and caused destruction. The preparedness and timely actions of the State and Disaster relief agencies have ensured that the destruction was less devastating that it could have been. But still, nine lives were lost.

Today is International Day for Disaster Reduction. A day to pledge that we will commit ourselves to at least halt the human exacerbation of destruction due to disasters, and to stand by those impacted by them.


Acknowledgement: ‘Dealing with Disasters: Awareness, Preparedness, Response.’ Meena Raghunathan, Avanish Kumar. Centre for Environment Education. Ahmedabad. 2004.