How Do Hurricanes Get Their Names?

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Since Europeans first came to the Americas and the Caribbean, hurricanes have been named using a variety of systems. First they were named after Catholic saints. Later on, the latitude-longitude positions of a storm’s formation was used as a name. This was a little too cumbersome to use in conversation.

Military meteorologists started giving female names to storms during World War II, and in 1950 the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) adopted the method. The WMO devised a system of rotating, alphabetical names. (Names can be retired at WMO meetings by request from a nation that has been hit by the storm. The name is then not used for 10 years, which makes historic references and insurance claims easier.)

In 1979, the system was given a dose of political correctness: male names were added to the list, as were French and Spanish names, reflecting the languages of the nations affected by hurricanes.

Today, the WMO uses six lists of 21 names (Q, U, X, Y and Z names are not used) that it cycles through every six years, with the gender of the season’s first storm alternating year to year, and genders alternating through the rest of the hurricane season. If there are more than 21 named storms in a year, as there were in 2005, the rest of the storms are named for letters in the Greek alphabet.

Occasionally, a storm suffers something of an identity crisis and has its name changed. This happens when a storm crosses from one ocean to another, or if it dies down and then redevelops.

Will Your Name Be a Hurricane This Year?

If your name is Igor, then yes. The names being used for the 2010 season are Alex, Bonnie, Colin
Danielle, Earl, Fiona, Gaston, Hermine, Igor, Julia, Karl, Lisa, Matthew, Nicole, Otto, Paula, Richard, Shary, Tomas, Virginie, and Walter.

This article originally appeared as part of Matt Soniak's 2008 Hurricane FAQ.

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August 29, 2010 - 11:13am
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