The Interesting Story of How Hurricanes Get Their Names

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Hugo, Andrew, Katrina and now Florence are all names that will forever be etched into the annals of meteorological history, as well as the memories of millions of people who lived through the Atlantic cyclonic storms. But have you ever wondered why we give terrible storms names or who chooses the names?

As it turns out, the practice of using names to identify tropical cyclones goes back several centuries, however, originally, the system was centered around the date and place the storm hit. Examples of this include the 1526 San Francisco hurricane, the 1928 Okeechobee hurricane and the 1938 New England hurricane.

Credit for being the first person to give a person’s name to a storm goes to a Queensland, Australia, meteorologist named Clement Wragge, who named tropical cyclones and anticyclones between 1887–1907. Wragge used names drawn from the letters of the Greek alphabet, Greek and Roman mythology and female names, to describe weather systems over Australia, New Zealand and the Antarctic.

Humorously enough, the meteorologist was passed up to serve as the director of the government’s weather bureau and so the jaded meteorologist began naming the cyclones after his political enemies.

The Australian weatherman eventually retired and with his departure from meteorology went also his system of naming storms.

During World War II, accuracy in meteorology became a matter of national security as troop movements, naval fleets and bombing runs were all at the mercy of the weather. It was during this time that United States Army Air Forces forecasters at the newly established Saipan weather center, began informally naming typhoons after their wives and girlfriends.

This practice became popular among meteorologists who found that it reduced confusion during map discussions, and in 1945 the United States Armed Services publicly adopted a list of women’s names for typhoons of the Pacific.

Initially, the United States Weather Bureau, the forerunner to the National Weather Service was reluctant to adopt this practice with Atlantic hurricanes, as the Weather Bureau wanted to be seen as a serious enterprise, and thus felt that it was “not appropriate” to name tropical cyclones while warning the United States public. They also felt that using women’s names was frivolous and that using the names in official communications would have made them look silly.

In August and September 1950 three hurricanes occurred simultaneously and impacted the United States, which led to widespread confusion within the media and the public. As a result, the Weather Bureau saw the importance of naming storms.

Initially, storms were named according to the Phonetic Alphabet (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie…); however, there was no set standard list of words to describe each letter and consequently some referred to the following storm as Tropical Storm Charlie, while other meteorologists called it Tropical Storm Cocoa.

The following year, it was decided to start using a list of female names to name tropical cyclones and the public reception to the idea seemed favorable. The same names were reused during 1954 with only one change: Gilda for Gail.

However, as Hurricanes Carol, Edna, and Hazel affected the populated Northeastern United States, controversy raged with several protests over the use of women’s names as it was felt to be insulting to womanhood. Letters were subsequently received that overwhelmingly supported the practice, with forecasters claiming that 99% of correspondence received in the Miami Weather Bureau supported the use of women’s names for hurricanes.

Forecasters subsequently decided to continue with the current practice of naming hurricanes after women, but developed a new set of names ahead of the 1955 season with the names Carol, Edna and Hazel retired for the next ten years.

The current naming scheme used today began with the 1979 hurricane season. It uses alternating women’s and men’s names, and also includes some Spanish and a few French names.

Within the North Atlantic Ocean, tropical or subtropical cyclones are named by the National Hurricane Center in Miami when they are judged to have intensified into a tropical storm with winds of at least 39 mph. There are six lists of names which rotate every six years and begin with the letters of the alphabet, skipping Q and U, and alternating between male and female names.

The names of significant hurricanes are retired from the lists, with a replacement name selected at the next World Meteorological Organization’s Hurricane Committee meeting.

After Florence, the following names are up for use should additional tropical storms form in the Atlantic this year: Gordon, Helene, Isaac, Joyce, Kirk, Leslie, Michael, Nadine, Oscar, Patty, Rafael, Sara, Tony, Valerie, and William.

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