Hurricanes are given names because most people relate better to names and are more successful at remembering them that way. Initially, they were given alphanumeric identifiers, but this was found to result in communication errors that could lead to some people in the path of a hurricane being unwarned, with disastrous results. By giving specific hurricanes individual names we are able to identify each rapidly and communicate what they are doing to others without error or confusion.
Hurricanes, frequently called tropical cyclones or occasionally typhoons, are very large, slowly spinning storms, with wind speeds sometimes exceeding 100 mph; to be classified as hurricanes they need to have winds reaching a minimum of 74 mph. They are easily capable of sinking boats or even ships at sea, and causing massive damage in coastal regions and to significant distances inland; as demonstrated in the recent past by Katrina.
Geographical regions are not limited to one hurricane at a time, so clear identification of specific hurricanes is vital in preparing for their effects in the areas they will impact. Alphanumerical identification, or the hurricanes latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates (both tried for a short time historically) do not supply the clarity that an individual and unique name provides. Communications between meteorologists are more rapid, and informational broadcasts to populations likely to suffer the storm’s deprivations more effective, when the hurricane has an identifying name.
The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), an intergovernmental agency formed under United Nations’ charter in 1950, maintains six lists of alphabetical names. The lists are recycled over a six year period, although in the, so far, rare situation where more than 26 names are required within a single year, the next year’s list may be called into duty early. As global warming stimulates climate change, resulting in more powerful and more frequent hurricanes, the size of these lists may need to come under review. When a name is given to a tropical cyclone that proves particularly devastating and/or results in large-scale loss of human life, that name is retired from its list and a new name assigned for when that list next comes into use.
The WMO has 188 member states and territories as signatories to its charter, when a tropical cyclone forms in a region monitored by the national weather bureau of a non-affiliated country, they may request a name from the WMO’s current list, or more frequently will assign a name themselves.
Since 1979, both men’s and women’s names have been on the lists. Prior to this, the use of women’s names was the convention, initiated by an Australian meteorologist called Clement Wragge towards the end of the 19th century. It is unclear what his problem with women might have been, but the general male perception of the time was that women were emotional and potentially tempestuous, which no doubt aligned with the ferocity and unpredictable nature of the storms. Previous to that in the West Indies, hurricanes were named after the particular Catholic saint’s day they first made landfall on one of the islands. A somewhat strange convention considering the destruction they inflicted.