It is helpful to have a name for each hurricane, because more than one storm may be active at once. Names are also clearer than descriptions when communicating in poor conditions, such as to ships at sea. It took time though, for a universally accepted naming system to evolve.
Hurricanes were once named for Catholic saints. Europeans who colonized the Caribbean named the hurricanes there after the saints on whose feast days the hurricanes made landfall. One example is the hurricane Santa Ana, which struck in 1825. The saint’s day of Santa Ana is July 26, and that is when the storm came ashore in Puerto Rico.
The United States followed a similar convention, but named storms after secular holidays as well as saints’ days. Therefore, the storm of September 2 and 3, which killed hundreds in the Florida Keys in 1935, was called the Labor Day hurricane.
However, naming hurricanes for saints came to seem somewhat narrow. Not everyone is a Catholic, and “hurricane” is a local term for a tropical cyclone, a storm that forms in tropical waters worldwide.
A cyclonic storm with winds above 73 miles per hour is a hurricane in the Atlantic or the northeastern Pacific, a typhoon in the northwestern Pacific, and a cyclone elsewhere. A storm with winds above 39 mph becomes a “named storm”, except near the Philippines, where tropical depressions with winds below 39 miles per hour may be named.
Clement Wragge, an Australian meteorologist, experimented with various systems for naming storms, including names of women and names of politicians. In the United States, several systems were tried, but a system using female names was formalized in 1953.
Six alphabetical lists were created by the National Hurricane Center of the U. S. Weather Service. When winds reach tropical storm force, they receive the next name available from a list. The agency goes down the lists, one per hurricane season, so after the sixth year it starts over with the first list.
When a storm is especially destructive or deadly, that name is retired from the list for the sake of the victims, and replaced with another. There will never be another hurricane named Katrina.
In 1979, male names were finally added to the list. Male and female names now alternate. There is one name for each letter of the alphabet except Q, U, X, Y, and Z on each list used to choose names for storms in the Atlantic and Caribbean. These are French, Spanish, or English names, because those are the most-spoken languages in the region.
In the northeastern Pacific, lists lack only names beginning with Q and U. These lists are also used each year in turn, and every sixth year the agency begins again with the first list. The Central Pacific Hurricane Center in Honolulu names storms in the central Pacific. It uses Hawaiian names from four lists, and does not begin a new list each season, but continues down the old one.
Many agencies now manage lists of names for tropical cyclones. The Western North Pacific region, for example, has five lists, made of names contributed by the countries of the region. Australia, Fiji, India, The Philippines and other countries maintain lists, often through their national meteorological bureaus.
A committee of the World Meteorological Organization, an agency of the United Nations, oversees all lists. Storms are named in the region where they arise, and if they cross into another area, they generally keep their original name. Some naming agencies begin with a new list each cyclone season; others continue their current list in the next season.
There are only twenty-one names on each list for the Atlantic region and use of the next list only begins with a new season. Thus, it has always been possible that the names for any one year would run out. Storms then would have to be named with Greek letters. This happened for the first time in 2005, perhaps indicating that the number of powerful storms is increasing.
Naming hurricanes makes it easier to discuss them, and easier to communicate about them in poor conditions. When Europeans first encountered hurricanes, they named them for Catholic saints, but now names come from all the regions of the world.