How and why do hurricanes get their names?

Over the weekend, Tropical Storms Peter and Rose became the 16th and 17th named storms of this year’s Atlantic hurricane season, respectively. But what’s in a name, or at least a tropical storm or hurricane?

(Map: FreightWaves SONAR Critical Events. Tropical Storm Rose on September 20, 2021 at 5 p.m. ET. To learn more about FreightWaves SONAR, Click here.)

Before they began naming storms, hurricane forecasters referred to them by saying something like “the storm 500 miles east-southeast of Miami”. But six hours later, the position of the storm would change.

Even if more than one storm was going on at the same time, it was more difficult to tell which storm was being described. Forecasters had to find a better way to track tropical storms and hurricanes.

Early history

For several hundred years, many hurricanes in the West Indies were named after the holy day on which the hurricane occurred.

For example, there was Hurricane Santa Ana, which struck Puerto Rico on July 26, 1825, and San Felipe (the first) and San Felipe (the second), which hit Puerto Rico on September 13, 1876 and 1928 described in the textbook “Hurricanes” by Ivan R. Tannehill, an early 20th century meteorologist with the US Weather Bureau (which later became the National Weather Service).

Tannehill also told of Clement Wragge, an Australian meteorologist who began giving tropical storms women’s names before the end of the 19th century.

An early example of the use of a woman’s name for a storm, in this case Maria, was in the 1941 novel Storm by George R. Stewart. During World War II, this practice spread in the discussions of weather maps among forecasters, particularly Army and Navy meteorologists, who recorded the movements of storms across the vast oceans.

Make it official

A tropical storm gets a name when its persistent winds reach 60 km / h. It turns into a hurricane when its winds hit 74 mph, and the cyclone keeps its name. A cyclone is a large storm system that revolves around a strong center with low atmospheric pressure (counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere, clockwise in the southern hemisphere).

In 1953, the US abandoned a confusing two-year-old plan to name storms by a phonetic alphabet (Able, Baker, Charlie, etc.) when a new international phonetic alphabet was introduced. That year the National Hurricane Center began using feminine names for storms in the Atlantic Basin – the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and the Western Atlantic. In 1979 the NHC added male names.

Six lists of names are used in turns and are recycled every six years – meaning the 2021 list will be used again in 2027. The lists of names are now in a strict process by an international committee of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), based in Geneva.

The names on each list alternate alphabetically between male and female, and the first name on the list for each year alternates between male and female. For example, the first two names on the 2020 list were Arthur and Bertha. That year the first two names were Ana and Bill.

The names are chosen from English, French and Spanish as these are the main languages ​​spoken in the countries affected by tropical cyclones in the Atlantic Basin. There are no Q, U, X, Y, or Z names as there are no usable names that start with these letters.

The NHC believes that using easy-to-remember names will greatly reduce the confusion involved in exchanging detailed storm information between hundreds of widely dispersed stations, coastal bases and vessels at sea.

The nomenclature is also less confusing when two or more tropical storms occur at the same time. For example, a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico can move slowly westwards while another hurricane along the Atlantic coast moves quickly northwards at exactly the same time. Confusion and rumors have emerged in the past when storm warnings from radio stations were mistaken for warnings of an entirely different storm hundreds of kilometers away.

There is a separate list for tropical storms and hurricanes that form in the eastern Pacific.

In addition, separate lists are kept for typhoons in the western Pacific and tropical cyclones in the Indian Ocean.

additional Information

When a hurricane is particularly deadly or costly, the WMO “pulls” the name back and replaces it with a new one. Several names have been withdrawn since the lists were created, including Andrew, Camille, Hugo, and Katrina, to name a few.

If a storm forms during the Atlantic off-season from December 1st to May 31st, it will take on the next name on the list after the current calendar date. For example, if a tropical cyclone formed on December 28th, it would take the name from the previous season’s list of names. If a storm formed in February, it was named from the list of names for the following season.

Prior to this year the Greek alphabet was used when all the names on the primary list were exhausted, with names like Alpha, Beta, etc. But from now on the Greek alphabet is no longer used “because it creates a distraction”. from communicating hazard and storm warnings and is potentially confusing, ”the WMO said in a statement. The pronunciation instructions for the alternative list can be found here.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles from Nick Austin.

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