This hurricane season has proven to be an intense one, with several major hurricanes causing destruction across the Southeast and the Caribbean. The remnants of one hurricane, Ophelia, even caused damage in several western European countries. With names like Ophelia and Philippe, one might wonder how hurricanes get their names to begin with.
The short answer is that we name hurricanes to avoid confusion in forecasting and warning and that the names are chosen by the United Nations. If you want a more detailed answer, keep reading.
Before Modern Naming
Historically, hurricanes and tropical cyclones were given names based off of what and where they damaged and were generally named after the storm ended. Notable examples of this are the 1900 Galveston hurricane and the 1858 San Diego hurricane. This was before we had instruments such as satellites to help us track weather systems. Back then, we relied on ground and ship observations to track and predict the weather. This naming system could cause confusion, especially when there were two or more active storms at a time. In fact, NOAA reports that during this era, storm warnings were sometimes issued by accident hundreds of miles away.
Early Modern Naming
The first names given to tropical cyclones were by a meteorologist in what is now Australia in 1887. Clement Wragge started by naming cyclones off of the Greek alphabet but later moved to name them after Polynesian figures as well as politicians. His naming style for tropical cyclones fell into disuse following his retirement.
Following this brief period, professionals who traveled to Australia and New Zealand heard of Wragge’s naming practice. There were a few instances where the idea came up in editorials and books, most notably George Stewart’s Storm, published in 1941.
Toward the end of World War II, a forecast center in the Northern Mariana Islands (U.S. territory north of Guam) was tasked with forecasting for bombing raids on Japan. In an effort to aid in predicting typhoons, and being familiar with Wragge and Storm, the center began naming typhoons after their wives and love interests.
While some agencies (including the U.S. Air Force) began naming hurricanes for their communications, hurricane naming in the North Atlantic didn’t become public until Hurricane “Fox” was used in 1950. By 1953, the alphabetically issued hurricane names were frequently used in the press.
From 1953 until 1978, only women’s names were used for hurricanes in the East Pacific. The following year, men’s names made it into the list for hurricanes in the North Atlantic for the first time.
Today, the World Meteorological Organization (the weather bureau of the United Nations) establishes names for tropical cyclones in eight regions (called “basins”). These include for hurricanes in the North Atlantic as well as typhoons in the West Pacific, among others.
In the North Atlantic and East Pacific, storms are given a name once they become a tropical storm. Tropical storms are tropical cyclones that have winds in excess of 39 mph (62 km/h). Tropical cyclones with winds less than that are called tropical depressions and are given a number, such as Tropical Depression Eight (2016).
These lists incorporate both female and male names that are commonly found in nations affected by storms in that basin. For example, North Atlantic hurricanes will usually have American and Latin American names, while typhoons will have Japanese and other Asian names.
The list rotates every six years, so names found from this hurricane season (such as Arlene, Emily, and Philippe) will be seen again in the 2023 Atlantic hurricane season. Occasionally, names are retired and replaced when they cause significant damage or loss of life. Some storms whose names were retired include Katrina in 2005, Irene in 2011, and Sandy in 2012. Retired names will never be used to name hurricanes again. One could speculate that some storms from this year, such as Harvey and Irma, might also be retired, but that would officially occur at a later date.
What Happens When All the Names Are Used
Storms are named alphabetically from A to W, skipping the letters Q and U. If all 21 of those names are used in a season, tropical storms and hurricanes after the ‘W’ storm will be named the letters of the Greek alphabet. This has only happened once in the North Atlantic – during the 2005 season, where six Greek letters were used. Two of those, Beta and Epsilon, became hurricanes.
In 2012, The Weather Channel started naming winter storms by calling the post-tropical remnants of Hurricane Sandy by the name ‘Athena’. Other media outlets had already done so, such as a newspaper in New England. The National Weather Service has not picked up on this practice, saying:
“The National Weather Service does not name winter storms because a winter storm’s impact can vary from one location to another, and storms can weaken and redevelop, making it difficult to define where one ends and another begins.”
-NWS Spokesman Susan Buchanan in the Atlantic
Opinions among meteorologists about the naming of winter storms varies widely, but one thing will always be a fact – as The Weather Channel is not a government agency, they hold no authority on the matter of naming storms. By issuing storm names on their own, they risk confusing the public about the potential impacts of a storm.
It is, of course, always possible that the National Weather Service or the World Meteorological Organization could move to name winter storms in the future, but for now naming of winter storms will continue to be how naming for hurricanes was before the 1950s – either by their date, location or impacts. Some examples of this include the 2006 Hanukkah Eve Storm and the Schoolhouse Blizzard, which occurred in 1888.
Much of this article was adapted from information contained in an Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Library PowerPoint by Neal M. Dorst. That PowerPoint can be downloaded in its entirety by clicking this link.