From the devastating blow of hurricane Katrina to this year’s destruction in Haiti, hurricanes are undoubtedly one of nature’s most indomitable creations. The US alone averages a number of 11 tropical storms with 6 of these turning into hurricanes and 2.5 turning into major hurricanes (www.swivel.com). Known for their brutal mortality and costly destruction, hurricanes have cost up to 58 Billion USD in 2008 alone (wikipedia, 2008). Why is it then that these phenomenal events are given such simplistic names? Katrina, Josephine and Arthur are hardly fair affiliations to an insurmountable force. This article explains.
Before the first official list of names in 1953 hurricanes were named differently through out various parts of the world. The West Indies named theirs after Saints, the US used a phonetic alphabet (Able, Baker, Charlie) or the year and a letter of the alphabet (1935B) and in Australia one young meteorologist even began naming hurricanes after political figures he disliked.
Eventually storms were commonly identified by their longitudinal and lateral codes. Military forces such as the Navy and Air Force along with people of the general public found that this methodology of identifying hurricanes was confusing and long winded. Hurricane co-ordinates became too complicated to communicate and wasted costly time while also confusing the public. Between storm forecasters, meteorologists and whether stations, a new naming process was proposed to help ease communication.
The National Hurricane Centre officially adopted a new solution and began naming hurricanes using women’s names. Perhaps this was due to the similarity in nature of an angry storm and an angry woman. “To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power” Maya Angelou, American Poet 1928 (http://thinkexist.com.
In 1953 the first list for the Atlantic tropical storms was released and the new International Phonetic Alphabet was born. This consisted of an alphabetical order of female names that started with a corresponding letter of the alphabet. The first name starting with an A, the second name with a B, and the last name starting with a W. Letters that had uncommon names were left out such as Q, U, X, Y, and Z. Ten years later (between 1978 and 1979) they decided to add in male names and currently use a list that alternates between both male and female names. There are two separate names lists for the naming of hurricanes, one for the Atlantic and one for Eastern Pacific. Each one has a sub-set of 6 lists with different names for each of these sets. One set is used per year until the six lists have been exhausted in which you start over at the first years list of names again. This means that no two names will be used twice in a six year period. Once the initial six year period is up, the names and lists are repeated. This rule of thumb holds true unless there is an overwhelmingly devastating storm in which the name is then used and replaced with a new one. This is done for sensitivity purposes.
The Tropical Storm period starts around June 1 and ends November 30, any storms that fall outside of this period are termed off-season and yes, they do happen. The Atlantic Basin recorded 36 tropical and sub tropical cyclones in 2008 with May and December accountable for 86% of these storms. Off season hurricanes get their names from the list of names in the year that they fall on. A hurricane in December takes from that current year’s list, whereas a hurricane in January would take from the New Year.
All storms start as a tropical depression and are given a formal name once they have reached the 39 mph mark. Once they have hit this speed they are considered dangerous. All names are now listed and managed by the World Meteorological Organization and is a United Nations Specialist Agency located in Switzerland. For more information on tropical storms and hurricane naming you can visit them on their website at www.wmo.int. There is a comprehensive list of names for the next 6 years and an A-Z topic finder on all things storm.