How Tropical Storms get their Names

Andrew, Charley, Katrina, Rita. How does a tropical storm, or hurricane get its name? The process of naming a tropical storm was developed to make it easy to identify and explain a particular system to those who may be affected by them during the course of a hurricane season. This naming process has helped to eliminate any confusion when there are multiple systems in the same area at one time.

Historically, hurricanes in the West Indies were named after the particular saint’s day of which the hurricane occurred. For example, on July 29, 1825, hurricane “Santa Ana” struck Puerto Rico and “San Felipe” struck twice on September 13 in 1876 and 1928. This confusing process of naming storms was later abandoned for a phonetic alphabet.

The National Hurricane Center first started naming Atlantic tropical storms in 1953. This list of names has expanded beyond the Atlantic and is now maintained and updated by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), an international committee. Separate name lists exist for each region, the Atlantic Basin has a different rotation list than the Eastern Pacific, all of which are maintained by the WMO committee. The original list of names consisted of only women’s names until 1979 when men’s names were introduced. The men’s names added to the list are alternated with the women’s names; Arthur, Bertha, Cristobal and Dolly for example are the first four alternating names on the 2008 Atlantic Basin list. Their are six lists of names that are used in rotation. The list currently being used for 2008 will be used again in 2014, unless a storm or hurricane name is retired.

Retirement from the list occurs whenever there is a devastating hurricane that has caused significant damage in the Atlantic Basin (or other region). The hurricane’s name is retired from the list for at least ten years, if not forever. Retiring the names of these devastating storms eliminates any confusion with future storms of the same name. This also helps with dealing with insurance claims and legal issues surrounding a storm’s impact.

The lists for each year consist of 21 names for the Atlantic Basin, other regions may have fewer or more names on their list. The 21 names for the Atlantic Basin are a phonetic alphabet, excluding the letters Q, U, X, Y and Z. The Greek alphabet (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, etc) is used in the event that all 21 names are used during a season. Storms that develop in the off-season take the next name in the list based off the current calendar date.