How Hurricanes Get Their Names

How Hurricanes Get Their Names

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The heat wave that hit Seville, Spain, at the end of July was distinguished not only by its temperatures, which exceeded a hundred and ten degrees, but by the fact that it was the first heat wave ever to have a name: Zoe. In June, the city initiated a system similar to that used for hurricanes. Each heat wave will receive an intensity ranking and a name, in reverse alphabetical order. Up next will be Yago, Xenia, Wenceslao, and Vega.

The Atlantic Ocean hurricane-naming system has been around since 1953. The names proceed in alphabetical order, omitting the “difficult” letters “Q,” “U,” “X,” “Y,” and “Z.” For the first twenty-five or so years, hurricanes and tropical storms were exclusively given female names. In part, this continued the tradition of sailors naming ships after the gender mostly absent on them. In 1979, the names began alternating between masculine and feminine. In the hurricane season of 2022, we will meet Alex and then Bonnie, and eventually Gaston and Hermione, and, should we reach a twenty-first storm, he shall have the comforting old-school name of Walter.

Because of the rising temperatures of the oceans, hurricanes are projected to become more intense on average. In 2006, the National Hurricane Center added four specialists, expanding its forecasting team from six to ten. Daniel Brown, a senior hurricane specialist at the N.H.C., which is based in Miami, has been working on hurricane forecasts since 1993, the year after Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida; it was his first job out of school. “From 2017 to 2021, we’ve had more Category 4 and 5 hurricanes make U.S. landfall than we had from 1963 to 2016,” he told me. In both 2005 and 2020, the number of hurricanes and tropical storms went past the planned list of twenty-one names. No. 22 and on were named for letters of the Greek alphabet. The 2020 season ended with Hurricane Iota.

For hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean, there are only six lists of names. Last year’s list was used six years ago, and six years before that, back to 1979. But now and then, after a particularly deadly or costly storm, a name gets retired. Brian McNoldy, a meteorologist at the University of Miami, explained that there is “no precise science” to making a storm name emeritus. “It’s not as if there’s a number of deaths, for example, after which a name gets retired,” he said. “It’s more a subjective sense of ‘That was a really bad storm.’ ” At the annual gathering of the Regional Association IV Hurricane Committee of the World Meteorological Organization, which is part of the United Nations, representatives from any of the involved countries can propose retiring a storm name. Discussion then follows; finally a vote; the name then is, or isn’t, retired. In 2021, Ida was retired, replaced by Imani, chosen in a similar process. (Names that aren’t chosen are not shared with outsiders, as the meteorologists feel there’s already sufficient scrutiny of hurricane names.)

Using the Greek alphabet was itself retired after 2020. It didn’t make sense to “retire” a letter. But, just as you wouldn’t want to have another memorable hurricane named Katrina, you wouldn’t want to have to clarify which Iota you were referencing, if both were really rough.

Brown explained that the N.H.C. is trying to get people to understand that some of the most intense storms undergo what is called rapid strengthening: “Of the recent storms in the United States with winds greater than a hundred and fifty miles per hour at landfall, all but one of them were tropical storms”—not strong enough to be classified as hurricanes—“less than three days prior.” That quick shift in storm “personality” makes getting people to prepare a challenge.

But names, too, might affect how people prepare for storms. A 2014 study analyzed sixty-two years of records of mortalities associated with hurricanes. The lady hurricanes caused significantly more deaths than the gentlemen. The study also included experiments in which participants were asked to rank the riskiness of a hurricane after being shown a map and read a description of uncertainty about the hurricane’s future intensity. Hurricane Alexander was seen to be more threatening than Hurricane Alexandra, Victor more so than Victoria, Christopher more so than Christina. Unnamed hurricanes were ranked about as dangerous as female hurricanes. The study concluded with the suggestion that “a storm named for a flower may seem less threatening than one named for a raptor.” The study received a good amount of criticism: for example, since only female names were used before 1979—and prediction and preparedness were almost certainly poorer in the past—the results of the archival analysis might be unreliable.

There are other curiosities in the annals of hurricane naming. McNoldy, for fun, looked more closely, and found that those starting with the letter “I” were most likely to have been retired. We’ve retired Ida, Igor, Ike, Inez, Ingrid, Ione, Irene, Iris, Irma, Isabel, Isidore, and Ivan. “There’s really no great reason why it should be the case,” he said, and pointed out that the letters near it don’t have nearly as many retirees. “ ‘C’ and ‘F’ have the most after ‘I.’ Then ‘D’ and ‘A.’ That’s pretty scattered.” I asked him whether he had a theory. He paused, then answered like a scientist: “Maybe one aspect is that we’ve only got ninety-four retired names. It’s only seventy or so years. If we had three hundred and fifty years of history . . . for now, there’s too much noise in the system.”

Other parts of the world have their own systems for naming, and use names that are familiar to people in that part of the world. In the Central North Pacific, four lists are rotated through, with names including Aka, Neki, and Unala. In the Western North Pacific and the South China Sea, each country affected in the area gets to contribute a name. Micronesia added Mitag to the list; the Philippines added Ragasa.

The etymology of “hurricane” itself is considerably more august than the next-door-neighbor names of individual hurricanes. In the tradition of the Tainos, who were native to the Caribbean, the earth, the sky, and the stars were created by the goddess Atabei. She had two sons. One created the sun, the moon, the plants, and the animals. The other, jealous of his brother’s creations, began to destroy them with a powerful wind. The jealous brother adopted the name Jurakan. (The story in some ways resembles that of Cain and Abel.) Depictions of the god show a face with two arms emerging from the head in different curves, forming an “S,” suggesting that the Tainos may already have known what Western civilization only surmised in the middle of the nineteenth century—that hurricane winds rotate.

“Kamikaze” is an awesome word—it signifies a wind that is divine. In medieval Japan, the term “kamikaze” was used to refer to typhoons. (Hurricanes and typhoons are equivalent in all ways save geography: hurricanes are creatures of warm waters east of the International Date Line, and typhoons are the same weather phenomenon in warm waters to the west of it. Because the northeast Pacific waters are so vast, typhoons tend to be stronger.) The idea that a typhoon was a divine wind emerged in the thirteenth century, after two uncannily timed storms. In October, 1274, Kublai Khan, along with some forty thousand sailing troops, prepared to invade Japan, which was outnumbered and outgunned; then a typhoon hit, drowning a third of the invaders. Seven years later, Khan returned, this time with a hundred and forty thousand men; again, a typhoon decided the outcome in favor of the Japanese. The Khan made it out safely, but remains of the ships that carried tens of thousands of men are still found at the bottom of the sea today. What the Khan named that tropical cyclone is, so far as I know, lost to us. ♦

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