A cyclone by any other name

In the build up to the cyclone I found myself wondering why anyone ever thought Pam would be a good name for a storm. “Batten down the hatches, Pam is coming.” My Aunty Pam? She’s not that scary.

The best reason for calling a cyclone Pam is that a familiar name is easier to communicate. It creates a user-friendly shorthand that helps with efficient messaging before, during and after any civil defence event. That’s why cyclone names are chosen to be familiar to the people in each region.

I still find it a bit odd that they attach people’s names to destructive storms. It’s not like they apply the same logic to other natural hazards. “Leading tonight’s news: Earthquake Willie rattles the nation and doctors urge vaccination against a particularly nasty strain of Natalia.”

A collection of all the cyclone names in the world can be found on the World Meteorological Organisation’s website which I looked at to try to understand why my aunty was coming to get us.

The name for any cyclone depends on where in the world that cyclone starts. Each part of the world has its own list of cyclone names. If a new cyclone forms in your region, you name it from whatever is next on your roster.

It must be a drag being a meteorologist when you get to officially classify a tropical cyclone, then you look down your region’s list and realize you have to call it Pam. People who name planets and diseases have much more fun.

Pam was named when it formed in the Pacific region that is monitored by Fiji and New Zealand. Further ahead on the same list are names like Victor and Winston. When you get to the end of the list you start again. In a few years we will probably encounter a cyclone called Frank. I know a guy called Frank. It ought to be a top quality cyclone.

A different list is used for cyclones that originate near Australia. The Australian list has names like Marcia, Kate and Harold. Since New Zealand shares cyclones with Australia and Fiji, our cyclones don’t always arrive in tidy alphabetical order.

Each region’s list operates in a slightly different way to all the other lists. Cyclones that form near Japan and China are named from a selection of 140 contributions from countries in that region. The list includes words for flowers, birds and food.

Some region’s lists are longer, other are shorter. Some specify names for particular years: Waldo is a 2015 name; Winifred is a 2016 name.

If a particularly memorable storm hits, that name is pulled from the list and replaced with something else. There will never be another Hurricane Katrina.

At this point we should clear up any confusion about the difference between hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones. There is no difference – they are all exactly the same storm, just named differently in different parts of the world. The weather system we are talking about here is a tropical cyclone. In America it is called a hurricane. In the north western Pacific and Philippines it is a typhoon. In the Indian Ocean and South Pacific it is a cyclone.

In August last year Hurricane Genevieve crossed the International Date Line and became a typhoon. Kind of like getting on a plane wearing jandals and reaching your destination to find yourself wearing thongs. Nothing has changed but the name.

I grew up never being sure whether to be more fearful of hurricanes or cyclones. Turns out it doesn’t matter. Whether hurricane or cyclone, whether named after my aunty or anyone else, it’s all the same bad weather when it hits.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 20 March 2015. Reproduced with permission.