New Delhi: Before it struck the US in 2005, Katrina was just a harmless sounding name. But the fury of Aila, which hit India and Bangladesh on Monday killing at least 73 people, is in its name—Aila means fire and has its etymological origins in the Maldivian language of Dhivehi.
Unlike US weather scientists who strictly alternate between male and female names for severe cyclones, the ones that strike India rarely sound sexist.
According to the India Meteorological Department’s (IMD) website, storm names must be “...culturally sensitive and shouldn’t have a negative, inflammatory meaning”.
“Storms can be named after flowers, birds and, as far as possible, be gender neutral,” said Ajith Tyagi, director general of IMD. Most importantly, the names have to be short, he added.
It was only after 1979 that male names were used to mark storms striking the US, after protests by feminist groups.
Cyclone names are fixed in advance. Every year the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), an intergovernmental body that collaborates on weather data and sets conventions on forecasting, sifts through lists of cyclone names.
India is part of an eight-member sub-group of WMO that includes Myanmar, Thailand, Pakistan, the Maldives, Oman and Sri Lanka. In 2004, these countries fixed a list of names that are used sequentially. Cyclones aren’t as frequent in these regions as in the US, where weather scientists often exhaust their list within a few years. Aila, in contrast, is only 17th on the list of 64 names in use since 2005.
Unlike cyclones that strike the US and Australia, North Indian Ocean (which consists of the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal) storm names aren’t recycled or “retired”. Names of particularly devastating storms in the Pacific or Atlantic, such as Katrina, are retired, meaning they are never used again.
“Storms are always devastating and, therefore, their names are never repeated (in our naming convention),” said Tyagi.
The next three big storms that rage through India or its territorial waters are going to be called Phyan, Ward and Laila—names proposed by Myanmar, Oman and Pakistan. The next name of Indian origin will be Jal.
Aila was preceded by Bijli (lightning)—a name coined by India—which whimpered past Bangladesh in April.