Explainer: How do cyclones get their names?

Who gets to do it and how
Oct 15, 2021

Have you ever wondered how cyclones get their names? Where did the name Cyclone Tauktae come from and what does that word mean? The same goes for storms. Does a meteorologist name them or some global authority?

When Pakistanis got a chance to name storm you can guess what kind they thought of: Cyclone Saima and Toofan Tooba come to mind.

But the truth is that the names Pakistan suggested were quite poetic: Gulab, Asna, Badban, Gulnar and Parwaz.

People often ask who names cyclones and storms and how.

Globally, there are six regionally specialized meteorological centers and five cyclone warning centers. They advise on storms, monitor cyclones and name them.

The New Delhi centre advises 13 countries of the north Indian basin: Bangladesh, India, Iran, Maldives, Myanmar, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, UAE and Yemen.

The right to name the storm goes to the country in whose basin it forms. So the cyclone that hit Gujarat, India was named by Myanmar where it originated. In Burmese, Tauktae means lizard. Why did it choose lizard? Your storm, your choice… 

But where do these names come from? Cyclone naming is believed to have generally started in the 19th Century. They were named after an area or country or a saint if it hit on a day dedicated to holy person. They were also named after ships they hit.

It is said that famed meteorologist Clement Wragge started the tradition.

It was going just fine until the 20th Century when some Western meteorologists decided that this way was boring and they would name storms after women to jazz things up a bit. (Perhaps it was a jilted lover, we don’t know) But names such as Katrina, Sandy, Tracy, Manahil, Urmi, Irma, Nilofer surfaced.

In the 2000s, this biased tradition was stopped after there were protests.

How are names kept now? You can’t just keep any name. SOPs have to be followed: The name should be politically and culturally appropriate, easy to pronounce, decent and within 8 letters.

A list of 64 names was prepared in 2004 by the World Meteorological Organisation when the 8 countries submitted their choices. And so cyclone names are decided before they even form. Pakistan gave its list and as we told you at the start they were quite poetic. And it’s safe to say, lizard, was not on the list.

This story was first published May 18, 2021.



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