Cyclone Sidr: A hurricane by any other name

A familiar nightmare crashes into Bangladesh. The usual suspect makes an appearance

Published November 15, 2007 4:13PM (EST)

A massive tropical cyclone smashed into Bangladesh on Thursday morning. Hundreds of thousands of people have been evacuated. Some of the deadliest storms in history have pummeled this low-lying region at the north end of the Indian ocean. In 1970 Cyclone Bhola's storm surge killed 500,000 people, almost exactly 37 years ago. The Bangladesh cyclone of 1991 resulted in another 138,000 deaths.

So now comes Cyclone Sidr. The usual climate change narrative is being invoked. As Dan Shapley, writing at The Daily Green, observes, you don't have to prove a direct connection between global warming and extreme storms to be nervous. The border region between India and Bangladesh, drained by both the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, is one of the most flood-prone areas in the world. Even a minor increase in sea level multiplies the damage caused by storm surges. Bangladesh's vulnerability offers ample opportunity for worst case scenarios.

But watching the satellite animations at HurricaneZone, I found myself puzzled over a seemingly trivial aspect. Via satellite, Cyclone Sidr looks just like a hurricane. So why were all the news reports calling it a "cyclone?"

A Bloomberg News story clears the confusion: "In the Indian Ocean, the U.S. Navy uses the term tropical cyclone to describe all large circular weather systems built around an area of low pressure."

Typhoons, hurricanes, Indian cyclones -- they're all the same thing: big circular storms.

The point being: a good year for "hurricanes" -- as in, relatively few storms slamming into North America -- doesn't necessarily reflect what is happening on a global scale. Typhoons hammered into China all summer long. A "once-in-a-century" storm just laid waste to the Black Sea. And now "cyclone" Sidr is howling into Bangladesh. The names change, but the narrative remains the same.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Environment Global Warming Globalization How The World Works Hurricanes