How Do Hurricanes Get Their Names?
For a period in early September, three hurricanes—Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Jose, and Hurricane Katia—were brewing over the Atlantic simultaneously. In the chaos of preparing for the storms to hit land, we would have also had to deal with the confusion of telling them apart, if it weren't for a naming system that's been used for decades.
Prior to the 1950s, Atlantic hurricanes were identified simply by the year and the order in which they occurred. This system was imperfect, however, especially when meteorologists and the media had to keep tabs on multiple storms at the same time. So in 1953, the U.S. began using a list of female names ordered phonetically to better clarify which Hurricanes were coming when. Male names were assigned to storms in 1978, and in 1979 the co-ed database of names we now use to track Atlantic storms was officially adopted.
The list includes 21 names for each year, with names for the letters Q, U, X, Y, and Z missing from the lineup. For years when more than 21 storms appear, letters from the Greek alphabet are used to label the extras.
The catalogue has enough names to last six Hurricane seasons, after which it gets recycled. When hurricanes are especially fatal or destructive, those names may be retired out of respect. In those cases, the World Meteorological Organization convenes to decide on a new name to fill the empty slot. Andrew, Katrina, Ike, and Sandy are a handful of names that have lost their place on the list.
Following 2017's historic hurricane season, the World Meteorological Organization will likely be removing at least a couple names from the current roster before it's next used in 2023. While they won't be accepting suggestions, they will make the updated list available for the public to see years in advance.