Did you know Cyclone Hudhud, expected to hit India’s south-eastern coast on Sunday afternoon, was “born” in Oman?
We are talking about the name of the cyclone, not the storm itself. The cyclone itself originated in the north Andaman sea in the Bay of Bengal and is now hurtling towards Andhra Pradesh and Odisha states.
The name Hudhud in Arabic refers to the Hoopoe bird.
Hurricanes and tropical cyclones in the Atlantic have had their own names since 1953, a convention begun by Miami’s National Hurricane Centre and maintained and updated by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a Geneva-based agency of the United Nations.
But naming came to South Asia and the Middle East only recently.
It was just too controversial to do the same around the North Indian Ocean. For years cyclones that originated in the north Indian ocean were anonymous affairs.
In the days before 2004, cyclones in the North Indian ocean were nameless. One of the reasons, according to Dr M Mahapatra, who heads India’s cyclone warning centre, was that in an “ethnically diverse region we needed to be very careful and neutral in picking up the names so that it did not hurt the sentiments of people“.
But finally in 2004 they clubbed together and agreed on their favorite names. That was when an international panel on tropical cyclones led by the WMO sat down and decided to name their cyclones as a committee in the spirit of co-operation and consensus.
Eight countries – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Myanmar, Oman, Sri Lanka and Thailand – took part. They came up with a list of 64 names – eight names from each country – for upcoming cyclones.
The list goes alphabetically, according to each country. The last cyclone in the region was Nanauk in June, a name contributed by Myanmar.
Names can be suggested by the general public in the member country or by the government. India, for example, welcomes suggestions on the condition that the name must be “short and readily understood when broadcast, not culturally sensitive and not convey some unintended and potentially inflammatory meaning“.
“A storm causes so much death and destruction that its name is considered for retirement and hence is not used repeatedly,” a statement by India’s weather office says.
So this time, following the alphabetical order, it is Oman’s turn. Last year, Phailin, the name for a massive cyclone which battered India’s south-eastern coast and led to the evacuation of more than 500,000 people, was provided by Thailand. Some of the Indian names in the queue are the more prosaic Megh (Cloud), Sagar (Ocean) and Vayu (Wind).
The Hudhud, or hoopoe bird, is an exotic creature noticed for its distinctive crown of feathers and is widespread in Europe, Asia and North Africa.
Next time a cyclone hits the region, it’s Pakistan’s turn to give it a name. It will be called Nilofar. Last time Pakistan named a cyclone was Nilam in November 2012.
The names will not dry up anytime soon. Dr Mahapatra says Hudhud is possibly the 34th name of the list, which means there are 30 more in the queue. The panel of cyclone experts meets every year, and they will be replenishing the list whenever the need arises.
It’s not that the list of 64 names has been without controversy. Cyclone Mahasen, which hit in 2013 and was named by Sri Lanka, was changed to Viyaru after protests by nationalists and officials in Sri Lanka. They said Mahasen was a king who had brought peace and prosperity to the island, and it was wrong to name a calamity after him.
Nevertheless, it is important to name cyclones, say experts. A name helps people and the media to identify each cyclone and become more aware of its implications. It also does not confuse people if there is more than one tropical cyclone brewing in the region.
And these cyclones often prove to be deadly – their names resonate for a very long time.