At 21:10 pm on the 2nd of April, 2020, when the Solomon Islands Meteorological Service upgraded the special weather bulletin to a tropical cyclone, I received a strange text message from my uncle.
“Hey, they’ve just named a cyclone after you!”
I wasn’t on Facebook at that time, so that SMS was kind of confusing. I headed straight to Facebook to confirm the news while on the side, I had my Chinese-made radio dialled to SIBC as my back up plan to get the verification.
The confirmation finally came when Elizabeth Sade of SIBC sounded the live warning “…at 8:00 pm this evening, tropical cyclone Harold (category one) with a central pressure of 997 hectopascals was located…Southwest of Rendova Island, Western Province.”
The heavy downpour plus the howling wind outside my Mbuburu-based residence resonated perfectly with the warning.
But to me, it was kind of funny how Harold is seen as a perfect name for a tropical cyclone.
In the Solomon Islands, sometimes the word cyclone is used as a nickname for a person who rambles about aimlessly with little to no care for whatever is standing in his way.
The so many funny messages I get on Facebook from local friends since yesterday confirm the fact that it can be somewhat funny to have a cyclone named after you in a place like the Solomon Islands.
I’ve heard a lot of stories about how cyclones got their names.
Back in the days, grown ups used to brain washed us with the belief that cyclones were named after their discoverers. I grew up believing that. But, I’ve never verified that information with any qualified meteorologists.
Now that a cyclone is called Harold, which happens to be my name as well, I’ve decided to verify stories that I’ve heard about the process of naming cyclones by looking for the answer myself.
Why is it important to name cyclones?
The very reason behind the naming of cyclones is to avoid confusions when it comes to communicating information about a particular storm.
Simply put, when a cyclone is given a name, media companies like SIBC, the Solomon Star, just to name a few, will find it easy to report on the developments surrounding the storm.
Interestingly, Mr. Wragge named the tropical storms during his time “after Greek letters, mythological creatures and even political figures of the time that he didn’t like!”
When Mr. Wragge retired in 1902, the practice died but it was later readapted by meteorologists.
Historically, storms during that time were given feminine names. But, in 1975, according to the University of Melbourne, the “former Australian Minister of Science Bill Morrison decided to start naming storms after both male and female names, in recognition of it being International Women’s Year.”
“Today, each organisation responsible for the naming of tropical storms in certain regions uses a predetermined alphabetical list that alternates between masculine and feminine names,” the statement on the University of Melbourne website confirms.
Because cyclone names are predetermined, the statement further adds that “there is actually no correlation between a tropical storm’s name and its severity.”
This means that just because a storm is given a masculine name doesn’t mean that it will possess more power than the one having a feminine name.
How Cyclones are named
The World Meteorological Organization’s (WMO) website states that six lists of names are used in rotation when it comes to the naming of tropical cyclones.
In each list, men’s names are alternate with the women’s names.
This list, according to the World Meteorological Organization, can be reused in the future.
“The 2019 list will be used again in 2025,” the WMO website confirms.
Do they exclude any names?
To further understand this, it is important to note that the difference between a hurricane, a cyclone, and a typhoon is the location where the storm occurs.
In the Atlantic and Northeast Pacific, the term “hurricane” is used. The same type of disturbance in the Northwest Pacific is called a “typhoon” and “cyclones” occur in the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean.
When a cyclone occurs in our region, meteorologists will refer to the predetermined list of tropical cyclone names to identify the most suitable name for the storm.
Unlike Wragge, the meteorologists of today will not use names associated with current political figures or other people prominent in the media.
“For example, if the next hurricane in the Atlantic region was to be named ‘Hurricane Donald’, it would probably be changed to another masculine name starting with ‘D’, like Dennis or Douglas,” the statement on the University of Melbourne website states.
“Names can also be permanently retired if a tropical storm is particularly devastating or costly,” the statement further adds.
So in the Solomon Islands, we will never experience another Cyclone Namu or Harold, while the US will never have another Hurricane Katrina or Sandy.
According to the World Meteorological Organization, the name Harold is part of the list of cyclone names under the Australian Tropical Cyclone Warning Centre (TCWC).
While we can’t confirm at this stage whether the Australian TCWC was responsible for the naming of Tropical Cyclone Harold, we, however, understand that if a named cyclone moves into the Australian region from another country’s zone of responsibility, the name assigned by that other country will be retained.
I jokingly declared on Facebook yesterday that should there be any damages incurred by Tropical Cyclone Harold, I don’t want to be held responsible. While that was just a joke, I think what I’ve discovered from my research kind of answer the question I’ve been having all this time along.
Yes, I can now confidently say that names of tropical cyclones are predetermined and I now appreciate too that if the cyclone currently hitting the Solomon Islands isn’t given the name Harold, communicating information about its devastating impacts will be a bit messy and let alone confusing as news outlets will probably use different made-up names to refer to the same storm.