With the approach of the June 1-November 30 hurricane season, don’t waste time emailing the National Hurricane Center (NHC) pleading for your favorite person’s name to be added to this year’s list of storm names.
“I must receive a dozen e-mails a month with suggestions for names of tropical storms, even more if there is an active and high-profile storm present,” says Dennis Feltgen, the National Hurricane Center’s Public Affairs Officer.
The system for giving names to hurricanes if far too formal for any attention to be paid to these casual requests. The names used in the Atlantic Basin (The Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and Gulf of Mexico) come from six lists that are used over and over except for names of especially deadly or costly storms that are retired.
New names are added only to replace retired names, as Sandy was on April 11 by the World Meteorological Organization’s Hurricane Committee, which was meeting in Curacao. When last year’s list is recycled in 2018, “Sara” will be Sandy’s replacement.
Sandy was the 77th hurricane name to be retired and the only one from the 2012 list.
The system of officially naming Atlantic Basin storms began in 1950 using names from the joint British–U.S. World War II spelling alphabet― Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog, Easy, and so on.
The fifth 1950 storm, Hurricane Easy in early September, was anything but easy on Florida. After crossing Cuba Easy moved into the Gulf of Mexico and moved slowly north along the coast, reaching Cedar Key on Sept. 5. It made two loops inland, around Cedar Key, virtually destroying the town and dumping record rain on the area as it grew into a 125 mph, Category 3 hurricane (under today’s system). It came ashore for the second time north of Tampa and weakened to a tropical storm.
For the 1953 season the Hurricane Center switched to English-language, female names. One of the reasons for switching from the spelling alphabet was the names were commonly used as intended, to spell out words or as part of aircraft identification numbers, which could lead to confusion. Also, the same names were being used year after year.
The current system of alternating male and female English, French, and Spanish names began in 1979. By then more women were becoming meteorologists and some saw the earlier practice of using only female names as sexist.
Using Spanish and French names as well as English ones also makes sense because they are the other major languages in the region that hurricanes hit. While the U.S. National Hurricane Center is the lead hurricane forecasting operation for the region, the meteorological services of the other nations decide whether to issue watches and warnings as recommended by the NHC.
Why female names in the first place?
The idea most likely came from the informal use of female names, probably girl friends’ names, by Army and Navy meteorologists in the Pacific during World War II.
These meteorologists, in turn, could have gotten the idea from the novel “Storm” by George R . Stewart, published in 1941 and read by many World War II generation (and younger) meteorologists.
A storm is the novel’s main character. The main human character isn’t even named, but identified only as “the junior meteorologist.” He follows and plots on weather maps a storm that he calls “Maria” from the western Pacific across the ocean until it hits California and eventually affects a great part of North America.
The junior meteorologist’s reasons for naming the storm pretty well sum up why we name hurricanes and other tropical cyclones. “Not at any price would the junior meteorologist have revealed to the Chief that we was bestowing names―and girls’ names―at that upon these great moving, low-pressure areas,” Stewart writes. The meteorologist’s justification is “ …each storm is really an individual that he could more easily say (to himself, of course) … than ‘the low-pressure area center which was yesterday in latitude one-five-fie east, longitude forty-two north.”
Imagine what reports would have sounded like as Hurricane Sandy moved north last year if hurricanes didn’t have names: “The hurricane that hit Cuba two days ago it growing stronger and forecasters are beginning to see signs that this storm will threaten New York City.”
Even worse, imagine how broadcast meteorologists would have tried to talk about what was happening on Sept. 26, 1998 with Hurricane Georges just having hit Key West and on its way toward New Orleans while hurricanes Jeanne, Karl, and Ivan were churning the Atlantic Ocean if none of the storms had names.