Have you ever thought about how hurricanes are named—or why hurricanes have names at all? Decades ago, meteorologists determined that it’s safer to name tropical storms and hurricanes, because it helps people remember and communicate about storms more effectively.
Read on to learn all about how hurricanes are named.
The History of Naming Storms
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), hurricanes were originally named for saints who were honored on the day they occurred. For example, on July 26, 1825, Hurricane Santa Ana struck on the day Saint Anne was celebrated.
When two hurricanes struck on the same day, the more recent storm took the “II” suffix. For example, hurricanes hit Puerto Rico on September 13 in both 1876 and 1928. The storm became Hurricane San Felipe II.
Australian meteorologist Clement Wragge began the practice of giving storms personal names. In the 1890s, Wragge named storms after mythical figures, women, and politicians he disliked.
Later, officials used latitude and longitude positions to generate storm names, but this was confusing and cumbersome during radio communication and prone to error. Specifically, radio stations would broadcast storm advisories which would often then be mistaken for warnings about completely different storms—sometimes hundreds of miles away—causing false rumors and panic.
Meanwhile, military servicemen sometimes still graced storms with personal names. This was depicted in the George R. Stewart novel Storm from 1941, which became a Walt Disney movie about a storm called Maria.
During World War II, this naming practice became common among military meteorologists working in the Pacific, and in 1953 the National Hurricane Center formalized the system and began to use a list of women’s names for storms originating in the Atlantic Ocean. When they did, public awareness surrounding hurricanes significantly increased, and hurricane names quickly became part of everyday parlance.
The alphabetical list of female storm names was modified in 1979 when male names were added. Hurricane Bob, the first storm with a male name, hit the US Gulf Coast that year.
The Modern System
Today, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) at NOAA does not control tropical storm naming. Instead, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) sets a strict procedure. Headquartered in Geneva, the WMO updates the world’s six weather regions; the US is in region four, which consists of North America, the Caribbean, and Central America.
The NHC created six lists of hurricane names for Atlantic tropical storms that the international voting committee of the WMO maintains and updates. The lists contain French, Dutch, Spanish, and English names since hurricanes affect various nations in the region.
[For storms forming in the Indian Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, and across Australasia, other lists are in place. Since a wider variety of languages are spoken in the Western Pacific/South China Sea basin, countries in the region contribute names on the lists. For example, one list includes Damrey (Cambodia), Haikui (China), Kirogi (North Korea), and Yun-yeung (Hong Kong).]
Each Atlantic storm list has 21 female and male names which are used on a six-year rotation. In other words, the hurricane names from 2020 will be used again in 2026, unless a name is retired.
If more than 21 named tropical cyclones happen in a single season, meteorologists will name additional storms based on the Greek alphabet.
There are 21 names on the list because none of the names start with the letters Q, U, X, Y or Z. This is simply because it’s not as easy to generate as many names starting with those letters in the target languages. Names of hurricanes previously included names from A to Z. For example, in 1958, there were hurricanes Udele, Virgy, Wilna, Xrae, Yurith, and Zorna.
The only change to this pattern is when a name is retired. Typically, this only happens when a storm is so costly or deadly that future use of it seems inappropriate. The US Weather Bureau first retired hurricane names after the destructive 1954 season unleashed major hurricanes Carol, Edna, and Hazel on the northeastern US.
More recently, Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey were retired. No names have yet been retired from 2019, but they are likely to be; the decision to replace and retire a name is made in spring at the annual session of the Hurricane Committee—which was postponed in 2020 due to coronavirus.
There have been exceptions to the retirement rule; certain names were removed before the first permanent six-year storm name list went into use in 1979 without any known reason. For example, Frieda was removed in 1966, and Fern took its place.
We hope this overview of how hurricanes are named has been useful. If you’d like to see names for upcoming years, visit the US National Hurricane Center here.