Cyclones are caused by atmospheric disturbances around a low-pressure area distinguished by swift and often destructive air circulation. They are usually accompanied by violent storms and bad weather. The air circulates inward in an anticlockwise direction in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern hemisphere. Cyclones are classified as: (i) extra tropical cyclones (also called temperate cyclones); and (ii) tropical cyclones.
The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO, 1976) uses the term ‘tropical cyclone’ to cover weather systems in which winds exceed ‘gale force’ (minimum of 34 knots or 63 Kph). Tropical cyclones are the progeny of ocean and atmosphere, powered by the heat from the sea, driven by the easterly trades and temperate westerlies, the high planetary winds and their own fierce energy. In India, cyclones are classified due to the:
- Strength of the associated winds,
- Storm surge and
- Exceptional rainfall occurrences.
Extra tropical cyclones occur in temperate zones and high latitude regions, though they are known to originate in the polar regions. Cyclones that developin the regions between the tropics of Capricorn and Cancer are called tropical cyclones. Tropical cyclones are large-scale weather systems developing over tropical or subtropical waters, where they get organized into surface wind circulation. Cyclones are given many names in different regions of the world – they are known as typhoons in the China Sea and Pacific Ocean; hurricanes in the West Indian islands in the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean; tornados in the Guinea lands of West Africa and the southern USA.; willy-willies in north-western Australia and tropical cyclones in the Indian Ocean. The word cyclone is derived from the Greek word `Cyclos’ meaning the coils of a snake. It was coined by Henry Peddington because the tropical storms in the Bay of Bengal and in the Arabian Sea appeared like the coiled serpents of the sea.
The criteria below has been formulated by the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), which classifies the low pressure systems in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea on the basis of the capacity to damage, which is adopted by the WMO.
|1 knot - 1.85 km per hour|
|Cyclones are classified into five different levels on the basis of wind speed. They are further divided into the following categories according to their damage capacity.|
- A fall in the atmospheric pressure over the sea surface
- The effect of the wind
- The influence of the sea bed
- A funnelling effect
- The angle and speed at which the storm approaches the coast
- The tides
How Cyclones are formed
The development cycle of tropical cyclones may be divided into three stages:
i) Formation and Initial Development Stage
The formation/ initial development of a cyclonic storm depends upon various conditions. These are:
- A warm sea (temperature in excess of 26 degrees Celsius to a depth of 60 m) with abundant and turbulent transfer of water vapour to the overlying atmosphere by evaporation.
- Atmospheric instability encourages formation of massive vertical cumulus clouds due to convection with condensation of rising air above ocean surface.
When the tropical storm intensifies, the air rises in vigorous thunderstorms and tends to spread out horizontally at the tropopause level. Once air spreads out, a positive perturbation pressure at high levels is produced, which accelerates the downward motion of air due to convection. With the inducement of subsidence, air warms up by compression and a warm ‘eye’ is generated. Generally, the ‘eye’ of the storms has three basic shapes: (a) circular; (b) concentric; and (c) elliptical. The main physical feature of a mature tropical cyclone in the Indian Ocean is a concentric pattern of highly turbulent giant cumulus thundercloud bands.
iii) Modification and Decay
A tropical cyclone begins to weaken in terms of its central low pressure, internal warmth and extremely high speeds, as soon as its source of warm moist air begins to ebb, or is abruptly cut off. This happens after the landfall or when it passes over cold waters. The weakening of a cyclone does not mean the danger to life and property is over.
The Indian subcontinent is one of the worst affected regions in the world. The subcontinent with a long coastline of 8041 kilometre is exposed to nearly 10 per cent of the world’s tropical cyclones. Of these, the majority have their initial genesis over the Bay of Bengal and strike the east coast of India. On an average, five to six tropical cyclones form every year, of which two or three could be severe. More cyclones occur in the Bay of Bengal than the Arabian Sea and the ratio is approximately 4:1. Cyclones occur frequently on both the coasts (The west coast - Arabian Sea; and the east coast - Bay of Bengal). An analysis of the frequency of cyclones on the east and west coasts of India between 1891 and 1990 shows that nearly 262 cyclones occurred (92 severe) in a 50 km wide strip on the east coast. Less severe cyclonic activity has been noticed on the west coast, with 33 cyclones occurringin the same period, out of which 19 of these were severe.
Tropical cyclones occur in the months of May-June and October-November. The cyclones of severe intensity and frequency in the north Indian Ocean are bi-modal in character, with their primary peak in November and secondary peak in May. The disaster potential is particularly high at the time of landfall in the north Indian Ocean (Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea) due to the accompanying destructive wind, storm surges and torrential rainfall. Of these, storm surges are the greatest killers of a cyclone, by which sea water inundates low lying areas of coastal regions and causes heavy floods, erodes beaches and embankments, destroys vegetation and reduces soil fertility.
Cyclones vary in diameter from 50 to 320 km but their effects dominate thousands of square kilometers of ocean surface and the lower atmosphere. The perimeter may measure 1,000 km but the powerhouse is located within the 100-km radius. Nearer the eye, winds may hit 320 kmph. Thus tropical cyclones, characterized by destructive winds, torrential rainfall and storm surges disrupt normal life with accompanying the phenomena of floods due to the exceptional level of rainfall and storm surge inundation into inland areas. Cyclones are characterized by their devastating potential to damage structures, viz. houses; lifeline infrastructure-power and communication towers; hospitals; food storage facilities; roads, bridges and culverts; crops etc. The most fatalities come from storm surges and the torrential rain flooding the lowland areas of the coastal territories.