Whilst cyclones may have been around for millions of years, observations in the grand scheme of things are still relatively new – particularly in some parts of the world.
Worldwide, it appears that legend’s first mention of a tropical cyclone was the kamikaze, two typhoons which affected the area around Japan in the years 1274 and 1281. In both these years the Yuan dynasty, led by Kublai Khan, set out to conquer Japan in the name of the Mongol Empire. Both attempts were failures, and the typhoons were believed to have destroyed three quarters of their fleet.
Elsewhere around the world, the first mention of storms was later. In the Atlantic it was in 1494, two years after Christopher Colombus’s first voyage to the Americas. The first storm known to hit the United States was a storm that struck the western coast of Florida in 1523. The first known storm to hit the coast of Mexico beyond any doubt was in 1552 in Veracruz. Probably the first hurricane known to strike the northeastern United States was the Great Colonial hurricane of 1635.
The first storm recorded in the North Indian Ocean was uncovered by Force Thirteen in 2017 – a cyclone off the Arabian Peninsula killed approximately 100 people in the year 1503. Other scientific studies have made us aware of major cyclones in the South Indian Ocean that occurred in 1667, 1695, 1710, 1718, 1728, 1738, 1751, 1757, 1761, 1769, 1771, 1773, 1787, 1807, 1808, 1811 and 1829. Possibly the first recorded hurricane in Canada also turned out to be one of the deadliest – the 1775 Newfoundland hurricane which is believed to have killed over 4,000 along the eastern seaboard. In 1778, Indonesia was hit by its first recorded cyclone.
The first recorded Eastern Pacific cyclone was spotted by a German ship in 1832, near the Hawaiian islands. And, seven years later, another storm struck Mazatlán, Mexico. The first mentions of an Australian cyclone were in the 1830s and 1840s, with the first deadly storm in the area recorded in 1875.
The South Pacific recorded its first storm in 1845, and the South Atlantic was first given major attention during the Angola cyclone of 1991, after retrospective speculation of other storms as far back as 1970.
In this day and age it’s hard to believe that once upon a time hurricane forecasting didn’t exist.
The first hurricane warning service was set up in Cuba in 1873, followed by the United States two years later, after a major hurricane struck Texas. It was at this time that the first warning signals were inaugurated. The warning signal consisted of two red flags with black rectangles in the center, and has been used for hurricane warnings ever since.
However, whilst warning services went on to cover most of the Atlantic by 1920, it wasn’t until after this time that actual track forecasts began to emerge. In 1944 the first regular hurricane hunter flights commenced, but the first flights into hurricanes occurred the year before. Its initial aim was to reach tropical cyclones that would have otherwise gone undetected.Even with the arrival of satellite imagery later, these flights remain important in retrieving data about the storm.
The Atlantic was the second place to begin regular storm naming in 1950, using the military alphabet, followed by selected names beginning in 1953. This came a few years after the Western Pacific’s typhoons were named by the US Navy, and in 1959 the Joint Typhoon Warning Center was established in that region. In 1988 the Japanese Meteorological Agency became responsible for forecasting typhoons.
Then came the satellite era which began in the 1960s, beginning with polar orbiting satellites that circled the earth several times per day, until geostationary satellites arrived in the later part of the decade, picturing one region of the world every three hours or less. Over time the quality of satellites has increased, both in resolution and in visualisations. For instance,the first years of satellites saw visible pictures only, but infra-red imagery helped meteorologists massively when it came to tropical cyclones. The amount of data being sent back to us is also continuing to increase, with 1-minute imagery or even 30-second imagery now becoming available.
More recently, we’ve seen the development of computer models which predict in advance what will happen in the tropical regions and beyond. Generally, model accuracy is improving, but they are not always correct, especially at long range.
In the Atlantic and East Pacific, storms are named alphabetically. The Atlantic misses out the letters Q, U, X, Y and Z, and just the letter Q in the Eastern Pacific. If the naming list is exhausted, any further names are named after the Greek alphabet. Naming lists in the Atlantic and Eastern Pacific are recycled every six years, with names being retired from their respective list if the storm in question proves to be particularly severe in its impacts.
In the Western Pacific and other basins, relevant nations submit their own names to comprise their naming lists for storms.