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Why Do Hurricanes Have Names?

Why Do Hurricanes Have Names?

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For as long as people have been tracking and reporting hurricanes, also known as tropical cyclones, they’ve been struggling to find ways to identify them. Until well into the 20th century, newspapers and forecasters in the United States devised names for storms that referenced their time period, geographic location or intensity; hence, the Great Hurricane of 1722, the Galveston Storm of 1900, the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 and the Big Blow of 1913. Meanwhile, hurricanes in the tempestuous West Indies were named for the Catholic saint’s days on which they made landfall.

The pioneering Australian weatherman Clement Wragge began assigning names to tropical cyclones in the late 19th century, initially using the letters of the Greek alphabet and characters from Greek and Roman mythology. An eccentric and playful fellow, he later turned to the names of local politicians he particularly disliked; as a result, he was able to state in public forecasts that the officials were “causing great distress” or “wandering aimlessly about the Pacific.” Needless to say, Wragge’s subtly hostile approach didn’t take the meteorology profession by storm.

During World War II, U.S. Air Force and Navy meteorologists plotting storms over the Pacific needed a better way to denote hurricanes while analyzing weather maps. Many began paying tribute to their wives and girlfriends back home by naming tropical cyclones after them. In 1945 the newly formed National Weather Bureau—later the National Weather Service—introduced a system based on the military phonetic alphabet, but by 1953 the options had been exhausted. The next year, the bureau embraced forecasters’ informal practice of giving hurricanes women’s names. Because America led the world in weather tracking technology at the time, many other countries adopted the new nomenclature.

By the 1960s, some feminists began taking issue with the gendered naming convention. Most vocal among them was a National Organization for Women member from the Miami area named Roxcy Bolton, whose many accomplishments throughout a lifetime of activism include founding women’s shelters and rape crisis centers, helping to end sexist advertising, achieving maternity leave for flight attendants and eradicating all-male dining rooms in Florida restaurants. In the early 1970s Bolton chided the National Weather Service for their hurricane naming system, declaring, “Women are not disasters, destroying life and communities and leaving a lasting and devastating effect.” Perhaps taking a cue from Clement Wragge, she recommended senators—who, she said, “delight in having things named after them”—as more appropriate namesakes for storms.

In 1979, the National Weather Service and the World Meteorological Association finally switched to an alternating inventory of both men’s and women’s names. (Bolton’s senator-based plan was rejected, however, as was her proposal to replace the word “hurricane”—which she thought sounded too close to “her-icane”—with “him-icane.”) In recent years, the lists of names, which are predetermined and rotate every six years, have been further diversified to reflect the many regions where tropical cyclones strike. Names of devastating storms with major loss of life and economic impact, such as Katrina in 2005 and Andrew in 1992, are permanently retired.

How hurricanes get their names

Storm naming is actually maintained by an international group of meteorologists.

How do hurricanes get their names?

— -- As Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm, begins battering the Caribbean, you may wonder how hurricanes get their names.

Storm naming is actually maintained by an international group of meteorologists known as the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

The organization's experts meet annually to discuss hurricanes. They also decide when to retire the names of the costliest and deadliest hurricanes, such as Katrina, Rita and Matthew.

A list of the retired names dating back to 1954 is listed here.

And if more than 21 storms strike in a season, names are pulled from the Greek alphabet

Retiring names "is based on the strength and how destructive the storms were," Susan Buchanan, a spokeswoman at the National Weather Service, a party to the WMO, told ABC News. "No one will forget Katrina or Sandy because they associate those names with a particular storm."

But it's too early to know if Harvey will join these historic hurricanes.

"I don't want to speculate whether the WMO will retire Harvey," she said.

She emphasized that the current naming system minimizes the difficulty in tracking multiple storms at once.

"They named storms to avoid confusion and it's easier to put in the history books," Buchanan explained.

Hundreds of years ago, hurricanes were named after saints, according to NOAA. The hurricane that struck Puerto Rico in 1825 was named Santa Ana, for example.

By the end of the 19th century, an Australian forecaster named Clement Wragge pioneered the practice of naming storms after the Greek alphabet. He then began applying women's names to tropical storms before the end of the 19th century, according to the NOAA website.

NOAA said a group of American soldiers in 1944 named a series of tropical storms in Saipan after their wives.

A year later, according to NOAA, the armed services adopted the practice of naming typhoons in the western Pacific after women.

By 1953, the military scrapped its storm-naming method, which worked off a phonetic alphabet, and started attributing female names to storms, according to NOAA.

Male names have only been included on the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) storm lists since 1979.

Today, meteorologists alternate male and female names for storms and rotate them out by using six lists that run through the year 2022.

"The lists are reused unless one [storm name] is retired and is substituted with a new name that is selected by the WMO," Buchanan said.

Earth's Meteorological Monsters

Hurricanes move in generally predictable patterns. This part of the investigation focuses on these patterns for hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean. First you'll examine the movie again to see if you can identify the patterns empirically. Then you will try to tie your observations together with information about global wind patterns.

Global Wind Pattern Effects

This illustration from NASA describes the patterns of wind movement on the global scale. The sun heats the air over the equator more than at the poles. This differential heating causes warmer, less dense air near the equator to rise, and cells of convection develop. These are called Hadley cells. At the surface, the cells generate winds. On the image, the large arrows show the directions of surface wind flow in the different zones. Red and blue indicate the relative temperatures of the winds. You can see that global winds point towards the equator in the tropics and towards the poles between 30 and 60 degrees latitude. Use your mental visualization skills to imagine how these surface winds would look on a flat map of the world.

In this image, the tracks of all tropical cyclones between 1985 and 2005 have been overlayed on an image of Earth. Even with only 20 years of data, you can see the patterns of how hurricanes move across the world's oceans. The track lines in the image are made up of dots representing the position of each hurricane at 6 hour intervals. Each dot is color coded to correspond to the strength of the storm on the Saffir-Simpson Scale, as shown in the legend in the bottom right corner of the image. Consider how the data shown in this and the image above are related.

Recent and Future Hurricane Names

In the Atlantic Ocean, tropical storms that reach a sustained wind speed of 39 miles per hour are given a name, such as "Tropical Storm Fran." If the storm reaches a sustained wind speed of 74 miles per hour, it is called a hurricane - such as "Hurricane Fran." So, hurricanes are not given names, tropical storms are given names, and they retain their name if they develop into a hurricane. The names used for recent and future Atlantic storms are listed in the table on this page.

How (and Why) Hurricanes Get Their Names

They seem to be coming at us in bunches now, either a product of climate change, the time of year or just bad luck. Maybe all three. These storms are absolutely unrelenting. They're unstoppable.

At least now, though, we know what to call them. Hurricanes (or typhoons, depending on where they are) used to be tagged with just a bunch of numbers, latitude and longitude. Sometimes just an arbitrary number. Some were named after where they came ashore (the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900) or for saints (the San Felipe hurricane of 1876). Antje's hurricane of 1842 was dubbed for the ship it de-masted.

Now, though, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) actually gives them short, simple names. Since the early 1950s, the WMO has coordinated with the National Hurricane Center, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to put a proper name to every tropical cyclone. (Both hurricanes and typhoons are tropical cyclones.)

There's a reason hurricanes aren't named willy-nilly any longer. Or Willy Nilly, for that matter.

"[N]ames are presumed to be far easier to remember than numbers and technical terms," the WMO website says. "Many agree that appending names to storms makes it easier for the media to report on tropical cyclones, heightens interest in warnings and increases community preparedness." Basically, people in the path of the storms will remember and pay attention to media reports about Hurricane Bertha than they would Hurricane Two.

And so the names come, in alphabetical order, off a set of six lists maintained by the WMO. The six lists rotate. So the names used in 2020 (Arthur, Bertha, Cristobal, etc.) for example, will come around again in 2026. (This is true for hurricanes in the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico and the North Atlantic. The lists differ in other parts of the world.)

For the record, only 21 names are on each list in the Atlantic/Gulf of Mexico/Caribbean region. Don't look for names beginning with Q, U, X, Y or Z (sorry, Zelda). And if the storms start really piling on, and forecasters need more than the 21 names in the same season, they turn to the Greek alphabet (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon and hello Zeta). Before 1979, the storms were named after only women, but then men were introduced to the mix and now the two alternate.

And the six lists stay the same unless a storm is particularly devastating, deadly or damaging. Then those hurricane names are retired, as in Hurricane Andrew, Hugo and Katrina. Nobody wants to see a warning for Hurricane Katrina pop up again. (It was replaced with Katia). Hurricane Florence and Michael also were retired at the end of the 2018 season after they walloped North Carolina and Puerto Rico, respectively.

Not including the 2020 hurricane season, 89 Atlantic hurricane or tropical storm names have been retired.

Only five times in the past 25 years has a hurricane season passed without a storm strong enough that its name was retired. During that stretch, it's never happened in back-to-back years. The last year that no storm had its name struck from the lists: 2014.

Why do we name tropical storms and hurricanes?

NOAA's GOES East satellite captured this view of Hurricane Florence shortly after the storm made landfall near Wrightsville Beach, N.C. on Friday, Sept. 14, 2018.

Until the early 1950s, tropical storms and hurricanes were tracked by year and the order in which they occurred during that year. Over time, it was learned that the use of short, easily remembered names in written as well as spoken communications is quicker and reduces confusion when two or more tropical storms occur at the same time. In the past, confusion and false rumors resulted when storm advisories broadcast from radio stations were mistaken for warnings concerning an entirely different storm located hundreds of miles away.

In 1953, the United States began using female names for storms and, by 1978, both male and female names were used to identify Northern Pacific storms. This was then adopted in 1979 for storms in the Atlantic basin.

NOAA’s National Hurricane Center does not control the naming of tropical storms. Instead, there is a strict procedure established by the World Meteorological Organization. For Atlantic hurricanes, there is a list of male and female names which are used on a six-year rotation. The only time that there is a change is if a storm is so deadly or costly that the future use of its name on a different storm would be inappropriate. In the event that more than twenty-one named tropical cyclones occur in a season, a supplemental list of names are used.

For a complete list of upcoming and retired storm names, visit the National Weather Service website.

‘One of the most active seasons on record’

Mr. Feltgen described the 2020 hurricane season as “hyperactive” compared with the average hurricane season, which usually produces 12 named storms, including three that develop into major hurricanes.

In May, NOAA predicted an above-normal season in the Atlantic, with as many as 19 named storms, with up to 10 that could become hurricanes. And as many as six of those could develop into Category 3, 4 or 5 hurricanes, it forecast.

The season was off to a record pace by July 30 with nine named storms, the most ever recorded since the satellite era began in 1966, according to NOAA. Before the official start of the season, Arthur, the first named storm, formed off the coast of Florida in May followed by Bertha, which made landfall near Charleston, S.C., later that month.

Last month, government scientists updated their outlook.

“It’s shaping up to be one of the most active seasons on record,” Louis Uccellini, director of the National Weather Service, said at the time.

Gerry Bell, the lead hurricane season forecaster with the climate prediction center of NOAA, said last month that there could be as many as 25 named storms before the end of the season. And seven to 11 of the storms could be hurricanes, with winds of 74 miles per hour or higher, including three to six major ones.

In recent decades, scientists have seen increased hurricane activity in the North Atlantic, by a measure that combines intensity with characteristics like duration and frequency of storms. Climate scientists say there are links between global warming and at least the intensity of hurricanes. As ocean temperatures rise, hurricanes grow stronger as warm water serves as the fuel that powers them.

What to do During a Hurricane

Once you’ve prepared, all that’s left to do is to act.

A lot of people wonder how to stay safe from a hurricane. While paying attention to an accurate source of weather information is important, make sure you following this hurricane safety checklist:

Listen to local authorities

Pay attention to watches and warnings for your area

Follow evacuation orders the moment you get them

Use flashlights, not candles

Do not tape windows with a “X”

Do not return/venture out until you’re told it is safe to do so

Use a generator responsibly – Don’t run it inside or in a garage, even if the windows are open

What Happens After a Hurricane?

Once a hurricane leaves your area you’re safe, right?

If only it was that simple. Areas that experience hurricanes can sometimes look like a war zone afterwards. The first thing you should do after a hurricane is make sure it’s really over. Some people mistake the calm eye of a storm to be the end of the hurricane. This is not the case. The only way to make sure is to hear it from local authorities, see it on radar, or consult with a meteorologist.

Once local authorities deem it safe for you to leave your home or building, clean-up begins. Make sure to take proper health precautions while cleaning up the mess left behind by a hurricane.

Hurricane Health Risks

Besides the obvious health risks associated with hurricanes and their violent conditions, there are more hurricane health risks when the storm moves out of the area.

One of the top risks is contaminated water. When extreme flooding impacts an area, sewage systems fail. That allows contaminated floodwater to mix with rainwater. According to the AIR Worldwide Corporation , Vibrio pathogens sickened two dozens people and killed six after Hurricane Katrina. In Haiti, over 100 people died from E. coli contamination following Hurricane Matthew.

Another hurricane health risk after the weather improves airborne pathogens. From inhaling carbon monoxide from a portable generator running indoors to breathing in mold spores in flooded structures, dangers are everywhere.

Mosquitoes are another hurricane health risk. Pools of standing water left behind by hurricanes are the perfect breeding ground for these pests. Mosquitoes can carry disease, so it’s important to empty standing water from places like tires and buckets.

When people with chronic conditions experience a hurricane, they have a lower chance of surviving. Those who depend on dialysis, oxygen, and insulin cannot receive those life-saving services during a power outage or when hospitals are unsafe due to flooding or other damage.

Finally, the last hurricane health risk is trauma. Living through an experience like a hurricane can be extremely traumatic. After Harvey , social workers reported four times more patients than usual.

How Are Hurricanes and Typhoons Named?

The practice of naming storms has a long history. Before the 20th century, notable tropical cyclones (also called typhoons or hurricanes, depending on geography) were generally identified by the time when they occurred or the location where they struck. Thus, the San Mateo Hurricane of 1565—which, by decimating a French fleet on its way to attack the Spanish settlement in St. Augustine, helped doom France’s efforts to control Florida—got its name because it made landfall on September 22, the day after the feast of St. Matthew. Meanwhile, the hurricane that devastated Galveston, Texas, in 1900, killing 6,000–12,000 people, is remembered as the Great Galveston Hurricane.

The practice of giving storms personal names appears to have originated with Clement Wragge, an Australian meteorologist who in the 1890s entertained himself by naming storms after women, mythical figures, and politicians that he didn’t like. The modern system of using personal names developed during World War II, when meteorologists began using women’s names—often those of wives or girlfriends—instead of cumbersome designations based on latitude and longitude. Short and quickly understood, names were easier to transmit over the radio and easier to keep straight if there was more than one storm in a given area. The system was formalized in 1953 when the National Weather Service put together an alphabetical list of female names to be used for storms in the Atlantic basin. Male names were added to the list in 1979 when women’s groups pointed out the sexism of using only female names.

So how are names picked today? A special committee of the World Meteorological Organization maintains lists of names to be used for tropical cyclones. The names on the list must be short, distinctive, and relevant to their cultural and geographic areas so that they are easy for people to remember. For the Atlantic basin there are six alphabetical lists of 21 names each, and the lists cycle yearly. So it is very likely, for example, that many of the names on the 2018 list, which starts with Alberto, Beryl, Chris, Debby, and Ernesto, will recur in 2024. The letters Q, U, X, Y, and Z are not used because there are not enough available names. If there are more than 21 named storms, Greek letters are used. For the Western Pacific/South China Sea basin, where there are a wider variety of languages spoken, names on the lists are contributed by countries in the region. So one list begins with Nakri (Cambodia), Fengshen (China), Kalmaegi (North Korea), and Fung-wong (Hong Kong). If a hurricane or typhoon is especially destructive, that name is retired from the list. Some notable names to have been retired are Katrina (2005), Sandy (2012), Haiyan (2013), Meranti (2016), Harvey (2017), Irma (2017), and Michael (2018).

Hurricanes have names -- now blizzards will, too

Mark Jordan digs out of snow on Capitol Hill that was left from an intense winter blizzard that hit the Mid Atlantic region in 2010. Like hurricanes, blizzards will start to receive their own names. (Photo: By J. Scott Applewhite, AP)

Story Highlights

  • Weather Channel will give big blizzards a name
  • National Weather Service not involved
  • Most names this winter have Greek/Roman theme

"Brutus bashes Buffalo" -- now there's a headline just waiting to be written.

Several decades after hurricanes first got formal names, some blizzards in the USA this winter will get their own names, too.

The Weather Channel will assign the monikers, "the first time a national organization in North America will proactively name winter storms," the network reports.

Most of the names on the list have a Greek/Roman theme -- the first three are Athena, Brutus and Caesar.

"On a national scale, the most intense winter storms acquire a name through some aspect of pop culture and now social media for example, Snowmaggeddon and Snotober," says Weather Channel winter weather expert Tom Niziol, referring to big snowstorms that blasted parts of the Eastern USA.

Snowstorms blowing in from Lake Erie are legendary in Buffalo. Over the years, they've been named locally after snakes (Anaconda, Boa, Copperhead) and insects (Aphid, Bedbug, Caterpillar), the weather service reports.

Tropical storms and hurricanes informally received names for the first time in the late 1800s from Australian forecaster Clement Wragge, according to former National Hurricane Center director Bob Sheets. Wragge "named storms after women -- and also after politicians with whom he disagreed," Sheets writes in his book Hurricane Watch.

During World War II, tropical storms and hurricanes were informally given women's names by military meteorologists (after their girlfriends or wives) who were monitoring and forecasting tropical cyclones over the Pacific, reports meteorologist Chris Landsea of the National Hurricane Center.

The formal hurricane naming system began in the mid-1950s. Men's names were added to the lists in 1979.

To avoid confusion, none of the Weather Channel's 26 winter storm names (one for each letter of the alphabet) has been on any of the lists of names produced by the hurricane center.

The Weather Channel says naming will occur no more than three days before a winter storm's expected impact, so forecasters are confident it could have a significant effect on large populations.

Unlike with tropical storms, which have specific naming guidelines based on wind speed, the criteria for winter storms will be flexible, Niziol says. The most important weather factors will be expected snowfall and/or ice accumulations and wind speed.

Population will play a big role, too, he says. A storm that dumps a foot of snow over the Cascades in Washington state might not get a name, while a storm set to hit Atlanta at rush hour with 1-2 inches of snow might.

Niziol hopes the names will raise public awareness about the storms.

He says an average of about eight to 10 storms will probably get a name each winter.