How do hurricanes get their names?

Hurricanes have unfortunately been in the news a lot lately with some Caribbean islands and states like Texas and Florida suffering severe damaged. But why do we name hurricanes and how do they get those names?

In short, we name hurricanes for simplicity’s sake. It’s much easier for scientists and ship crews to refer to storms by a first name rather than their latitude and longitude.

“Especially in the age of social media and hashtags, if people can identify a threat with a name, we think, you know, they are more responsive,” said Clare Nullis, a media officer at the World Meteorological Organization based in Geneva, Switzerland. The WMO is the international committee currently responsible for maintaining and updating names for each Tropical Cyclone basin. Harvey, Irma and Maria, for example, formed in the Atlantic basin.

The job of naming Atlantic hurricanes was originally the responsibility of the National Hurricane Center. In 1953, they began officially naming those storms by using female names. But protests over the gender equality of hurricane names caused men’s names to be introduced in 1979. Ever since men and women’s names have been alternated each year.

The lists of names are different depending what basin a hurricane forms in. Nullis says each area uses names that are culturally appropriate to their region.

“In the Atlantic and Caribbean basin, there’s obviously English speaking countries, there are Hispanic countries and there’s francophone countries,” said Nullis. “We have to pick names that are understandable in those three languages.

The Atlantic’s six lists of 21 names are rotated every six years. If the predetermined list is exhausted, additional storms will be named after the Greek alphabet. That last happened in the Atlantic in 2005, the year of Hurricane Katrina.

The only way a list will be altered is if the committee decides to retire a name, which it will do if a hurricane is particularly damaging or deadly. Retired names include Andrew, Katrina and Sandy.

“I think we can safely say that the names of Harvey, Irma and Maria will indeed be withdrawn because we don’t want to cause offense,” said Nullis. “These have been very, very damaging hurricanes that caused a lot of misery and severe loss of and we want to assign them to the history book.”

The next time any 2017 Atlantic hurricane names will be used is in 2023.