The process behind naming hurricanes explained

How a storm gets its name

By Candace Campos - Meteorologist

This geocolor image from NOAA satellite GOES-16 shows Hurricane Irma, left, and Hurricane Jose, right, in the Atlantic Ocean on September 7, 2017.

News 6 meteorologist explains the history and process behind naming storms during hurricane season.

Why are storms named?

Storms are given a name to help communication between forecasters and the overall public. During the season, forecasters could be tracking and supplying information on multiple storms. Naming them allows information to be streamlined to reduce confusion about which storm is being described.

How did naming storms come to be?

The earliest reports from the beginning of the 19th century show storms being named once they moved on shore and caused significant damage. Forecasters would name them according to a characteristic of the day. This could be a saint’s day, a holiday or the name of a town that was hit.

Naming storms as they development over water, started by the late 19th century. Forecasters began using the Greek alphabet. During World War II, Air Force and Navy meteorologists started naming them after their girlfriends and wives. This naming system was quickly turned down by the U.S Weather Bureau.  

After a confusing year of trying the Army/Navy phonetic alphabet in 1952, (Able, Barker, Charlie…) the U.S Weather Bureau decided to identify hurricanes with women’s names. By 1978, changing times and increased political pressure pushed the National Hurricane Center to request a change to the hurricane naming list. The final decision was to change the naming process to alternating male and female names. 

Who names the tropical storms and hurricanes?

The United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization, comprised of 25 members who represent over 120 countries that surround each ocean basin in the world are responsible for naming storms. Each region has its own sub association depending on the body of water it borders. Each body of water where tropical cyclones generate have its own list. For example, the list for Atlantic hurricanes is different than the Pacific hurricane names. Lists are created six years out for each ocean basin.

How are names chosen?

Each year, a list of 21 names is used. The list is compiled of alternating male and female names and does not include less-popular letters, including Q, U, X, Y and Z. Chosen names must also meet certain requirements before they are officially listed. They need to be short, easily understood and culturally sensitive in all the languages surrounding that specific ocean basin. For example, the Atlantic hurricane list is compiled of named derived from English, Spanish and French cultures, due to the countries that surround the Atlantic basin.

When are names retired?

The World Meteorological Organization decides if a storm name should be retired. The names are retired if the storm became a memorable storm due to the damage and deaths it caused. When storms are retired, they are not to be used ever again.

What happens if they pass the alphabet list of names?

Although it doesn’t happen often, it did happen for the first time in 2005. Both the Atlantic and Pacific list ran out of storm names. Forecasters then used the Greek alphabet.

What happens if a hurricane crosses into different oceans?

It can happen every few years, when a tropical cyclone crosses from the Caribbean Sea (the Atlantic Basin list) into the Pacific Ocean. In this case, the storm keeps its original name if it maintains tropical storm strength. If it falls falls apart over land but then regenerates officials with the National Hurricane Center decide whether or not to give it a new Pacific Ocean name. 

What names are available for the next few upcoming hurricane seasons?


*Image credit: National Hurricane Center


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