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07 Sep 2017

Ever wondered how hurricanes around the world get their names?

The intriguing science of naming hurricanes

In Texas, Hurricane Harvey has wrecked havoc. Hurricane Irma has slammed Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands and is moving towards Florida.

Meanwhile, Jose and Katia, still brewing into possible tropical storms, might rampage across the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic.

Have you noticed a pattern here? Read again.

Yep. Their names are alphabetical.

How hurricanes are named globally is indeed interesting.

In context

The intriguing science of naming hurricanes

Earlier, American soldiers' wives and girlfriends inspired names of storms

Earlier, the christening of storms wasn't a formal process. During WWII, US sailors started the trend of naming them after their romantic partners. For decades, female names continued to be exclusively used. But the practice was derided as sexist, and was overturned in 1979.

In the Atlantic, latitudes and longitudes messed up the process


In the Atlantic, latitudes and longitudes messed up the process

Till the 1950s, identification of storms in the Atlantic basin was based on latitude and longitude. It was cumbersome as well as subject to error: storms never stood still.

Then a formal naming practice began "to help in quick identification of storms, because names are presumed to be easier to remember than numbers and technical terms", the UN's World Meteorological Organization (WMO) says.

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America now goes alphabetically, in English and then in Greek

The US National Hurricane Center prepares 21 alphabetical names annually, seven years in advance. Major tropical storms in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic get their names from this list.

Eg, the first major hurricane in June-November 2022 will be called Alex. The 21st, if there's one, will be named Walter.

If the list ends before schedule, Greek letters come into play.

Atlantic has replaced its number-based naming system with boy-girl names

In the Atlantic, names of super storms are a combination of English, French and Spanish. This is in respect to the countries that tend to suffer the most. If one is named after a girl, the next will be named after a boy.

Here, as many as 14 countries propose 10 names each!

North Pacific

Here, as many as 14 countries propose 10 names each!

In the western North Pacific, the process is far more complicated, with as many as 14 countries participating!

Each country submits 10 names: they could be animals, plants, mythological figures, pretty much anything under the sun.

The WMO's Typhoon Committee then reviews and approves one. However, nations can opt out in their national weather reporting.

Just to be safe, storms are numbered too.

What about tropical storms in the Indian Ocean?

Since 2000, naming of tropical storms in the Indian Ocean has involved eight countries, again in alphabetical order: Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Myanmar, Oman, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Even here, the WMO supervises the process.


Despite convention, there do emerge some odd names!

Naturally, there are amusing cases sometimes: in Australia, a weatherman started naming cyclones after politicians he hated.

In April'15, one of the names in the eastern North Pacific list was "Isis"! The WMO had to intervene.

Misogyny has also lingered: a 2014 study controversially claimed female hurricanes are deadlier as they are taken less seriously.

To prevent such developments, the WMO maintains veto power.

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