Curiosities: How are hurricanes named and who names them?

2012-09-09T15:00:00Z Curiosities: How are hurricanes named and who names them?University Communications
September 09, 2012 3:00 pm  • 

Q: How are hurricanes named and who names them?

A: The first known scientific use of hurricane naming arose in the Pacific during World War II. It was an easy and effective way to distinguish one tropical cyclone from another on the weather maps, said Steve Ackerman, a UW-Madison professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences and director of the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies. The system was simple and alphabetical: The name of the first storm of the season would begin with A; the second, B; the third, C; and so on.

Naming hurricanes, he added, also gave homesick soldiers a way to recall loved ones. Thus began the practice by predominantly male meteorologists of giving female names to hurricanes. This practice persisted at the National Hurricane Center in Miami until the late 1970s.

Beginning in 1979, the list of names for each year's tropical storms and hurricanes was broadened to include male as well as Spanish and French names. The alphabetical naming system continues, now overseen by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The WMO composes different alphabetical lists for different ocean basins (for example, starting in 2000, northwest Pacific typhoons now have Asian names).

The names of severe and/or notable hurricanes are "retired" and taken off the lists. No meteorologist wants to tempt fate by naming a new hurricane Andrew, Ivan, Mitch or Katrina to cite a few of the recently retired names.

If the English alphabet is exhausted because there are so many named storms, the next names used are the letters of the Greek alphabet. During the record-setting hurricane season of 2005, Greek names were used for the first time ever: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon and Zeta.

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