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An 1885 super-cyclone in the Bay of Bengal: The Punjab connection

Rajesh Kochhar

The  very severe cyclonic storm, Phailin, is a reminder that due to a combination of factors a large number of cyclones rise in the Bay of Bengal some of which can be very severe indeed. While the destruction caused by high winds and storm surge is unavoidable it has now become possible to minimize loss of human life. Meteorological science has sufficiently advanced to be able to foretell the intensity and time table of a cyclone allowing the administration to warn the public and arrange for large-scale evacuation.

It would be of historical interest to recall a cyclone that crossed the Orissa coast on 22 September 1885. Known as False Point cyclone (after the name of the harbor where it hit land), it ranks as one of the severest cyclones in the recorded history of Bay of Bengal. It generated storm surge as high as seven meters and wind speeds of 250 km per hour. There is no official casualty figure but contemporaneous accounts suggest that about 10000 people lost their life. The damage due to the cyclone was minimal thanks to the scientific acumen of a 22-year old Indian meteorologist who, though placed on the lowest rung of official hierarchy,  boldly issued the red alert on his personal responsibility without caring for green signal from his superiors.

A product of Government College Lahore, Ruchi Ram Sahni was the first Indian to be appointed to a scientific post in India Meteorological Department which was at the time headquartered in Simla. (After serving here for two years, 1885-1887, he returned to his alma mater as its first Indian science professor.) In September 1885, the Met chief  Henry Francis Blanford as well as the first assistant, both Europeans, were away to Calcutta, leaving the lowly Indian second assistant in charge. While preparing the daily weather report, which normally was an un-exciting affair, Sahni was struck by the input from Diamond Harbour which showed an unusually rapid fall of atmospheric pressure. He sent an urgent telegram to the observer there asking him to send a fresh report of the latest readings. This report confirmed the original suspicion that a big storm was approaching. Sahni then asked him to remain in place till further orders and to keep sending half hourly reports on the weather. Next, Sahni asked two or three of the other neighboring stations to do the same. In the meantime he educated himself on the previous big storms by reading their description. Convinced of the veracity of his findings he boldly made his forecast public. The timely warning was a great help to the ships.

Dutifully, Sahni sent a long telegram to his chief at Calcutta explaining what he had done and on what grounds. Seriously perturbed and upset at the news, Blanford at once ran to Alexander Pedler and asked him if he knew of anything of a big storm in the Bay. Pedler was professor of chemistry at the Presidency College Calcutta as also  the provincial meteorological  reporter for Bengal. In the latter capacity, he  used to get copies of all reports that were sent to Simla. Being busy with his various official duties (teaching, water and gas analysis) and private practice (wine testing), Pedler had not even looked at the reports and knew nothing of the storm. On Blanford’s suggestion,  Pedler sent out orders to the affected stations to repeat the telegrams they had been sending to Sahni. By this time the storm had very much increased in intensity and had invaded the coast. Blanford and Pedler  were now convinced that Sahni had been correct in his judgment and the orders that he had issued were quite justified. Pedler went on to write a well-cited 80-page scholarly paper  on the cyclone. Predictably, the lengthy paper does not refer to the circumstances of its prediction. True to pattern, we know of Sahni’s forecasting of the storm from his own memoirs; the colonial-time records do not seem to mention his name.( The writer is Honorary Professor, Panjab University Mathematics Department, Chandigarh.)


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