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.