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© Ugur Akinci
I never thought naming hurricanes was a complicated business. I originally thought Atlantic storms were given male names and Pacific storms female ones. Period. Boy, was I wrong. Nothing is that simple in life, is it?
My naïveté starts with the assumption that these are all “storms.” Nope.
It’s a “tropical storm” if the winds blow over 39 miles per hour. Until that threshold is reached, no wind deserves the title “tropical storm.” Makes sense, except: do these storms always blow around the tropics? Like, what if there’s one that’s chewing up Northern Scotland, or offshore Greenland? Do we still call it a “tropical” storm?
And: what if the winds start blowing harder than 39 mph? That’s easy. If it’s over 74 mph it becomes a “hurricane” and please don’t ask me why at that exact speed. It’s the way U.S. National Weather Service decided.
Okay, what about a “cyclone”? What’s that? Oddly enough, the U.S. National Hurricane Center web site does not post a list of hurricane names but “cyclone names.”
Wikipedia basically says there’s no difference between a cyclone and a hurricane, and provides this fascinating factoid: the cyclones whirl clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere but counter-clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere. Did you know that? I sure didn’t.
Back to naming cyclones, or hurricanes…
There are many different ways to name a hurricane depending on the geography. Two major naming conventions define the Atlantic and Pacific storms.
Years ago, these storms used to be named after the latitude and longitude that they originated from. But there were two problems with that: people had difficulty remembering the exact name and thus mistakes were made in exchanging crucial information about storms with difficult-to-remember names.
Secondly, no storm stayed put (duh!). They started from point A, then went to B and C and so on. Thus naming a moving object by its stationary origination point didn’t make much sense either.
During WW2 American meteorologists started to use female names for storms in the Pacific. The convention was adopted in 1953 for Atlantic storms as well. The practice helped perk up the general public’s interest in hurricanes but didn’t sit well with feminists (and I consider myself one). To balance the scales, male names were introduced to designate the Eastern North Pacific storms, followed by adopting the same practice for Atlantic hurricanes in 1979.
Today, the U.S. National Hurricane Center uses a jaw-dropping list of 21 alternating male and female names for each year for Atlantic storms. Once in every 6 years the list rotates and we go back to the first list.
The storms are named starting with letter A (“Alex” for this year, for example), going down the alphabetical list.
For example, as these lines are written we are talking about hurricane “Earl” because the very last one was “Danielle.” That’s how the male and female names alternate for the Atlantic storms.
And what if there are more than 21 hurricanes in any given year? Greek alphabet to the rescue: storms are named “Alpha,” “Beta,” “Gamma,” etc.
See the list here http://geology.com/hurricanes/hurricane-names.shtml
Names of disasters like Katrina are “retired” from the list. I understand why that’s the case.
But there’s also a counter argument: if an approaching storm is expected to be as devastating as Katrina was, wouldn’t it make sense to call the new storm “Katrina” as well so that people would understand the severity of the situation and take appropriate measures right away? Other wise, we have to remind the public that “hurricane Bob will be as severe as Katrina.” There wouldn’t be need for that qualifier if names like “Katrina” were used for special cases rather than retired.
Anyway… “what about the Pacific storms, or the storms in other parts of the world?” you may ask.
That’s where things get even more complicated.
First off, there is no single list for the whole Pacific but 3 different ones for Eastern Pacific, Central Pacific, and Western Pacific.
Eastern Pacific names are just like Atlantic names: 21 names per year, rotate once every 6 years.
But Central Pacific has 4 shorter lists that are used sequentially. When you reach the end of the 4th list you revert back to the first name on List 1. Simple as that. There aren’t that many storms in the Central Pacific, I suppose…
Western Pacific is different in a “democratic” way. Yes, there are 5 lists with 28 names on each. These lists are used sequentially. But each row of this table is contributed by a different country with shore on or close to the Pacific. That way every year each nation has the dubious distinction of having contributed to the terminology by naming a disaster – provided, of course, there are at least 28 storms in any given year. If for example there are only 27 storms, no Vietnamese name is used that year for a Western Pacific storm. Or if there are 29 storms, a Cambodian name is used twice, etc.
Then there are those special storm naming systems used for Australia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Northern Indian Ocean and Southern Indian Ocean…
I don’t believe there is a separate terminology for any Persian Gulf or Mediterranean hurricanes perhaps because no hurricanes ever hit those bodies of water.
If you’d like to learn more about those region-specific naming conventions you can visit these two very informative web sites:
Now you know what’s in a name, don’t you?
As to your humble investigator, I’m still trying to find out how they name those fantastic polar cyclones…
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(Images courtesy of Wikipedia.)