Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Naming of Tropical Cyclones

Photograph: HMAS "Arrow" lies wrecked in Darwin Harbour following tropical cyclone "Tracy" in December 1974. Image: Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge

Whilst many of the famous tropical cyclones in Australia’s history are instantly recognised by the names they were given, such as Tracy, Althea and Trixie, some of our most intense cyclones were never named at all.

The reason for this is tied up in the history of the naming of cyclones in Australia, which is an interesting story in itself. Clement Wragge, the rather eccentric Queensland Government Meteorologist from 1887 to 1902, is thought to have been the first person in the world to name tropical cyclones.

He called them after letters from the Greek alphabet, figures from Greek and Roman mythology, feminine names and also the names of some of the politicians of the day, including Drake, Barton and Deakin. Wragge considered that both politicians and tropical cyclones were national disasters.

In 1902, the Member for Werriwa was the Honourable Mr. A.H.Conroy, who somehow had incurred Wragge’s displeasure because he featured in several cyclone warnings. These included “Conroy, looking nasty, is coming along the coast” and “Conroy, black and treacherous, is likely to cross the Southern District…”. Justifiably miffed, Conroy dismissed Wragge as “an advertising scientist”.

After Wragge had left the meteorological scene in 1908, the naming of tropical cyclones lapsed and was not resumed by the Bureau of Meteorology in Australia until 1963. Then only feminine names were employed, but after complaints that this practice was discriminatory, both male and female names were used from 1975 onwards.

As a result of all this, cyclones that occurred between 1908 and 1963 were generally not given a name and these included some major storms that created massive damage and considerable loss of life. A powerful cyclone devastated Mackay in January 1918, killing 30 people and destroying some 30% of the housing in the area. And in 1954 a cyclone struck the Gold Coast of Queensland with 26 people perishing and hundreds of houses destroyed in the general area. Neither of these cyclones was named.

Tropical cyclone "Ingrid" threatened the Queensland coastline during March 2005.

(NASA image) - click to enlarge

Today, the names of tropical cyclones come from a list maintained and updated by the Bureau of Meteorology according to quite a strict protocol.

This contains five main guidelines that are called the “Tropical cyclone naming policy” and these are:

* Tropical cyclone names in each list are alternate male and female

* Names of cyclones that have already significantly affected the Australian region cannot be used again – for example “Tracy”.

* If two or more cyclones are occurring simultaneously, similar sounding names (for example June & Jane) are avoided to minimise confusion

* Names should not be capable of being construed to subject the Bureau to criticism or ridicule (for example naming a sequence of cyclones after politicians)

* Lists of names are coordinated with neighbouring meteorological services to avoid duplication

These guidelines, together with the current list of names being used, can be found at


Tropical revolving storms – that we call tropical cyclones in Australia - are referred to as “hurricanes” in the USA and “typhoons” in much of Asia.

Hurricane derives from the South American Carib word “Hurican” meaning God of Evil, and typhoon originates from the Chinese “tai’fung” meaning Great Wind.

Reference: Australia’s Natural Disasters, Richard Whitaker (New Holland Publishers) 2005.

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