Under the weather

This week when Cyclone Nilam buffeted Chennai’s coast, our mind went back to the traumatic days of the last cyclone that hit the city in 1994. It was particularly devastating because we didn’t have the facilities or advanced equipment to handle its aftermath, especially no advanced cameras that we could use to click pictures and post on social media platforms.

Anyway, the importance of weather forecasting and disaster management techniques in these crucial times cannot be overstated. That is why we have chosen to understate them here by attempting this silly Q and A.

Q: How have disaster-warning techniques developed over the years?

A: Till the late 50s, weather science was very primitive, and people had to suffer, as there was no warning about natural disasters. But with modern technology evolving, and more precision instruments arriving on the scene, people now find themselves in a position where they have to suffer even before disasters strike.

Take the case of Nilam, we were pretty clearly warned about it at least four days in advance. Again, thanks to the miracle of modern science, we were constantly fed details of its movement, the amount of rainfall it would bring in its wake, the possible force of its impact and, well, every other detail that is possible in the circumstance all of which, of course, went spectacularly wrong.

But I don’t blame scientists or science. I blame nature. Nilam struck the Chennai coast, but provided all the attendant rain to Bengaluru. This was like Agarkar’s bowling, who after packing the leg-side with fielders was used to bowling a half-tracker outside the off-stump.

Q: Why and how are the cyclones/hurricanes/storms are named?

A: It was around 1958-59 that the scientific community understood that it is easier to fight a known enemy than an unnamed rival and began giving chosen names to cyclones and storms.

The naming of cyclones/hurricanes/storms was certainly major breakthrough, especially because the names provided the people, especially those not in the line of attack, to overcome the disaster by attempting some puerile jokes (with the names). Usually such jokes are so corny that most self-respecting cyclones beat a hasty retreat without causing much damage.

Case in point: Nilam.

(The difference between Cyclone Nilam and Cyclone Nilam jokes is the latter was a bigger disaster).

India did not get on this cyclone naming bandwagon till a few years ago. For instance, the last cyclone that hit Chennai in 1994 was a nameless one. But from now on, it will handily be remembered as: ‘That cyclone, yes the one that came before Nilam’.

Q: But how do you explain Sarojini Naidu, usually described as India’s first night in gale?

A: Ha ha. This is a popular conception. But many people commit this mistake because it is difficult to tell apart most poems from the MET Office bulletins.

Sample: This is a popular line from the well-known poet P B Shelley:

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Shelley, in his last days, is said to have confessed that he had picked it from that morning’s weather report in the newspaper because he was emboldened by the fact ‘only a few people read weather reports, and even fewer poems.’

To set the record straight, Sarojini Naidu was not a weather pattern but a poetess. And poets are defined as people who watch more weather than meteorologists.

Q: How do experts read a weather bulletin?

A: As far as India is concerned, meteorologists follow what is technically known in the department as the Two-Point Formula, which is:

Point 1: If you can identify the contours of the Indian map in the satellite picture, the country enjoys some weather that you need not be unduly worried about.

Point 2: If some part of India is not visible it means: either the monsoon is active over there or the satellite has not sent any picture and you’re merely looking at a blank board.

But remember weather listings — this is the beauty of science — are subject to plenty of last minute changes. For a more accurate reading of the weather in your place, you are generally requested to follow the fundamental scientific procedure of stretching your hand out the window.

This simple chart will help you get a better idea on how to gauge the weather outside when you put your arm out:

Hand gets wet: It’s raining.

Hand gets cut: You’re travelling in a train, moron.

Q: Moving on to disaster warning in ports, give us a background on the various ‘danger flags’ used by the port authorities to caution fishermen and ships

A: Ports have, over the years, come up with a simple efficient method of ensuring the complete safety of fishermen and sailors who have not ventured into the sea. (Those out in the seas can also benefit out of this efficient warning system provided they have the common sense to come to the port — which is where the flags are hoisted — to find out how choppy the sea is).

Anyway, there are eleven different warning flags with identifiable messages that the Indian ports use to communicate the danger levels in the weather.

No.1: Simple Red Flag, with the message being: Depression far at sea. Port not affected.


No 11: Upturned flag post, the message being: You imbecile, the winds are lifting out ships and you are trying to gauge the weather by trying to look at a flag. If you are alive don’t try to read this and get killed in the process.

Q: Finally, what are the basic precautions one, as a householder, can take in the face of cyclones and hurricanes?

A: Pretty elementary. Stock the house with a lot of food and water. Keep the windows and doors firmly shut. If possible, switch off the power lines. When you take these basic precautions, the cyclone usually veers away to other places. Like Andhra Pradesh.

At least that is what we think happened in the case of Nilam.