How are Hurricanes Named?

In class we speak very intimately about hurricanes. We also have spoken about the significance of names, as they can be a representation of identity and experience. Naturally, such discussion leads to the question, “how does a hurricane get its name?” I had already started doing research on the subject but became motivated to write up my findings when the question came up in our last class meeting. So here are the Twenty-one Names To Avoid Calling Your Baby This Year Unless You’re Planning to Romanticize Hurricanes:

Alberto, Beryl, Chris, Debby, Ernesto, Florence, Gordon, Helene, Isaac, Joyce, Kirk, Leslie, Michael, Nadine, Oscar, Patty, Rafael, Sara, Tony, Valerie, William.

How did this list come to be? Official naming of storms began in the late 19th century. As telecommunications became more ingrained in society, word about storms was able to spread almost as quickly as the weather itself. Soon enough, it became common practice to name storms that were particularly dangerous, because naming a storm makes it easier to  communicate about and pay attention to. At first the names chosen were rather arbitrary, just based off individual incidents such as if the storm had damaged a boat on its way towards the shoreline. As time went on, the World Meteorological Organization took on the task of systematically naming the storms, starting with only female names. In 1979, after running out of good female names, only male names were used. Finally the system that is used today was created: the list of twenty-one names would go through the alphabet, with every other name alternating by gender.

There are six of these lists being used in rotation every six years, so that the 2012 list is being used again this year and will be used again in 2024. That brings up another point: Hurricane Sandy happened in 2012, but isn’t on this year’s list. That’s because after a particularly catastrophic event, the committee chooses to retire that name and replace it with a new one of the same first letter and same gender for that list. A detailed rundown of the list that’s been recycled for 2018 can be found at NOLA.com.  

So how are these names chosen? Storm names seem to have an average of about five letters, and are chosen for their “distinctiveness” (although that quality is subjective). As a matter of pronunciation and not being able to come up with new names of these letters, Q, U, X, Y and Z are not used. These things are considered in order to make communication about the storm, both professional and public, easier. In modern times, it is easier to follow the both the progress of a storm and the discourse surrounding it on TV, radio, or social media if it has a name (especially with the prevalence of hashtags).

The following passage on page 42 in Superstorm by Kathyrn Miles is relevant:

“They’ve named the storm,” he said. “They’ve named it Sandy.”
“Sandy?” asked Wagner, his voice incredulous. He paused, then tried out the
name again. “Tropical Storm Sandy,” he said, rolling the name around on his
tongue. He shook his head and angled the plane back toward Mississippi.
Meanwhile, announcements of the system’s elevated stature as a named storm
prompted a flurry of Internet jokes: The storm was nothing more than the female
lead from a throwback soda-fountain musical, a two-bit squirrel from a cartoon
about a square-pants-wearing sponge. The cyberworld reveled in its levity: How
could such a sweet-sounding name possibly wreak much damage?

This narrative shows how it’s one thing to talk about the lists as a collective whole, but it becomes much more real when you’re experiencing the individual storm. Somehow we let our interpretation of a physical phenomena be affected by arbitrary human naming. As brought up in class on Friday, research shows that hurricanes with female names are more likely to hurt more people than those with males names. There are many analyses of this correlation. Some say it is a coincidence. Some say it is due to the fact that only female names were used until 1979. Others are concerned that people are finding female names less threatening, and are therefore less inclined to take protective action against the incoming hurricane. An experiment by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, as described in CNN, found that people even found hypothetical hurricanes to be less threatening when they had a female name as opposed to a similar male name.

Some final reflective thoughts:

The concept of naming hurricanes, including the specific names themselves, definitely subscribes to the gender binary. While a couple of the names are kind of gender-neutral, like Alex or Sam, for the most part the names have their position in the list as “male” or “female” very purposefully. I don’t necessarily see a way to “fix” this issue, I just think it’s worth highlighting and discussing.

Also, I quickly realized that both my research perspective and the articles I found in my research were very North American-centric. At first I thought that the World Meteorological Organization was simply whitewashed. But with some deeper digging I realized that there are other lists, including for the Eastern Pacific, Central Pacific, and Western Pacific tropical cyclones. The names on these lists seem to be representative of the areas they are describing. Additionally, the word “hurricane” itself is not used universally: “the name ‘hurricane’ is given to systems that develop over the Atlantic or the eastern Pacific Oceans. In the western North Pacific and Philippines, these systems are called ‘typhoons’ while in the Indian and South Pacific Ocean, they are called ‘cyclones’.”

 

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