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How are Hurricanes Named?

By O. Wallace
Updated May 17, 2024
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It has only been in the last half of the 20th century that the world devised a system to name hurricanes. With so many tropical storms, hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones circulating around the world, scientists, media and the public need a way to differentiate between the storms in a simple way. Naming the storms using a uniform system fulfills this need.

In the past, different countries had different methods of naming storms. In the West Indies, for example, people named them for the saint’s day that the hurricane occurred on. In the early 20th century, one Australian weather forecaster named storms for political personages he disliked.

During World War II, the US military informally named storms in the Pacific and Atlantic for their wives and girlfriends. The US National Weather Service began using women’s names to designate hurricanes in 1953. For the most part, most countries named storms for women.

It wasn’t until 1979 that the US National Weather Service began using names from both genders to designate hurricanes. Today, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) is in charge of selecting the names for storms around the world. For the Atlantic, there are six lists of both women’s and men’s names that begin with each letter of the alphabet, except for the letters Q, U and Z. The list rotates yearly on a six year rotation. The WMO, which represents more than 120 countries, uses a fairly democratic system of selecting names using nominations and votes on new names.

For Atlantic storms, the names can be French, Spanish or English. They range from ones as unassuming as “Bill,” to more exotic names like “Paloma.” The Pacific and Atlantic ocean each have a different set of names.

Storms in the Atlantic or eastern Pacific are called hurricanes, while those in the western region of the north Pacific and Philippines are called typhoons. In the South Pacific and Indian Oceans, storms are called cyclones. Storms in areas with Asian populations receive names of Asian origin.

Hurricanes start out as tropical depressions. Once a tropical storm develops, it earns a name from the list. The names are selected in the order of the list, alternating between male and female names.

After the list is exhausted, the WMO moves on to the Greek Alphabet, using Alpha, Beta and so on. About once a year, there is a storm so destructive that the name is retired and removed from the list. In 2005, the name Katrina was retired due to the destruction the storm caused and the negative connotations associated with the name. Nearly 70 names have been retired from the list and replaced with backup names selected by the WMO.

In the infrequent event that a storm moves from one basin to another with a different list of names, the name used to be changed to the new area’s list. In 1989, Cosme was renamed Allison when a system moved from the northeast Pacific to the Atlantic. Now, a “traveling” storm keeps its original identity.

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Discussion Comments
By MrsPramm — On Nov 04, 2012

I think it's kind of fascinating how the changing of the systems of names reflects the way the world has changed. We've kind of come through from not needing to name them because there was no real way to keep track of them over a long enough time to matter, to naming them in a really kind of sexist and racist way, to naming them in an awkward, but basically gender and race neutral way.

And we managed to do this without making all the storms take on non-human names, or giving them numbers or something, which seems like it would be the knee jerk reaction when something is regarded as not PC.

By Ana1234 — On Nov 03, 2012

@literally45 - I actually think it's got more to do with the fact that there simply aren't that many Muslim countries that are affected by hurricanes of this kind. The ones that are generally have their own local names which are used over the introduced Muslim names.

I'm sure, though, they wouldn't call a hurricane Mohammad the same way they wouldn't call a Hurricane Jesus. Even though it is used as a common name in some places, it's still going to rub people the wrong way.

By umbra21 — On Nov 02, 2012

@fify - I don't think there are all that many Hurricane Ikes. When you consider that there are separate lists according to the region and that those lists are rotated, and that there really aren't all that many hurricanes each year, each name probably isn't used all that often.

Besides, if the hurricane is minor, there isn't going to be much mention of it in years to come. If there is a mention, then it's not that difficult to say "Hurricane Ike of '98".

By anon288837 — On Aug 31, 2012

I thought they just used girls' names.

By fify — On Aug 20, 2012

I'm a little confused about how this whole process works. If the list for hurricane names rotate every six years, does that mean that hurricanes keep getting the same names over and over, every six years? Doesn't that make it confusing?

There must be tens of hurricane Ikes by now. How do scientists know which Ike they're referring to? They wouldn't know unless the year is mentioned.

I understand it wouldn't be possible to give a unique name to each hurricane considering how many there are every year. But I also find this naming process kind of confusing.

By literally45 — On Aug 20, 2012

@anon110805-- I've never heard of a hurricane named with a Muslim name. I'm not sure why that is.

It might be because the authorities don't want to accidentally offend anyone. I mean, if a hurricane was named Mohammad, I don't think people of the Muslim faith would be okay with that. Mohammad is the name of their prophet, so Muslims might think that it was done on purpose to insult their faith even though that would never be the case.

It's a sensitive subject so I think that authorities want to stick with "safe names" that are easy for us to use and pronounce but also that doesn't offend anyone.

But I guess many hurricane names could potentially bother someone. I mean, I'm sure there were Katrinas that didn't like their name being used for hurricane Katrina.

By serenesurface — On Aug 19, 2012

Did you guys know that the feminist movement had a lot to do with hurricane names going from all female to male and female?

I didn't know this either but we were talking about the names of hurricanes with my friend who told me about this.

I'm glad feminists protested all-female hurricane names. I mean, a hurricane is a bad thing. It's destructive, it causes deaths. It's not nice to exclusively give female names to them.

By anon155600 — On Feb 24, 2011

I wonder how the name 'Teressa' (list for 2009) was given to a hurricane when Mother Theresa was awarded the Nobel prize for peace?

By anon110805 — On Sep 13, 2010

Can a muslim name be used?

By anon107876 — On Aug 31, 2010

I think tropical storms have always been named. we just don't hear about it until it becomes a hurricane.

By anon31520 — On May 06, 2009

How was hurricane dolly named?

By anon2524 — On Jul 15, 2007

I do not remember tropical storms being named (just hurricanes) - when/how did this come about?

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