How Do Hurricanes Get Their Names?

Isaac, Kirk, and Lesile, oh my! As hurricane season is ramping up to its peak, all those storms swirling around in the Atlantic can get confusing. To help stop this confusion, we name tropical storms and hurricanes to more easily and clearly communicate information about them (we use numbers for tropical depressions). However, this was not always the case.

Back in the day, hurricanes were referred to by their position (latitude-longitude) or in some cultures, named after saints. This was not only hard to communicate, but confusing to the public about warnings. Thus after World War II, the navy began flying into the storms and referred to them by the international phonetic alphabet (Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog…and my personal favorite, Love) from 1950-1952. In 1953, it was decided that the storms would be named by women’s names. This was a common military practice when speaking about ships and planes, so it was carried on. The storm naming responsibility landed in the hands of the National Hurricane Center until 1977, when they relinquished naming rights to a regional naming committee with the World Meteorological Organization.

It wasn’t until 1979 that the current naming procedure was put into place. The committee decided to have 6 revolving lists of names that would repeat. These names include both male and female names that alternate and that are common in English, Spanish, or French speaking cultures. This means that the current list of storm names for the 2012 season will be repeated in 2018. The names are in alphabetic order with the “A” name used for the first storm of that year, even if it forms before the official start of hurricane season on June 1st or if the previous season did not use all the names on the list. The storm alphabet excludes the letters Q, U, X, Y, Z (how many names can you think of with those letters?). In the uniquely hyperactive seasons (let’s say 2005) when all the names in the storm alphabet are used, names are given following the Greek alphabet (Alpha, Beta, Gamma…).

The only exception for these names is when a storm has a significant enough impact that it would be inappropriate to continue using the name. That name is then retired. Some notable retired names are Andrew (1992) and Katrina (2005). When this happens, the committee meets to discuss and replace the name on the list.

My guess is that there will be no Isaac in 2018, so we will have a new “I” name to enter the list rotation. Any guesses on what the new name will be? Leave your guess in the comments.

Angela Colbert
Meteorology & Physical Oceanography
Graduate Student
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