Harvey, Irma…why do these weather phenomena have names? And how are they attributed?
It is the National Hurricane Centre (NHC) that chooses the name of tropical storms, such as the famous Hurricane Katrina in 2005. A list of names is drawn up each year, not necessarily in alphabetical order, alternating the names of men and women.
“A name is much easier to remember than numbers and technical terms,” says the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a UN specialized agency based in Geneva. “A name for a tropical cyclone facilitates the work of the media, increases the impact of warnings, and increases the preparedness of populations,” adds WMO.
The first known way of naming hurricanes was to name them after the saint of the day they struck. For example, on July 26, 1825, Saint Anne’s Day, a very violent hurricane hit the coast of Puerto Rico, leaving 1,300 dead (!). It is known as the “Hurricane of Saint Anne”.
It is already an old practice to name tropical cyclones. The use of a short and distinct name for both spoken and written communication makes it possible to go fast. The risk of error is less than with the more cumbersome methods of identification by latitude and longitude.
Initially, the names given to hurricanes were at first names of girls only. But since 1979, a new system has been put in place: it is based on 6 lists of girls’ and boys’ first names in alphabetical order, from A to W (Q and U are excluded).
The WMO, which has correspondents in each region, gives its opinion and intervenes when necessary to avoid possible controversy.
The need to name hurricanes arose at the end of the 18th century. Until the beginning of the 20th century, hurricanes that hit the Spanish Caribbean islands were named after the patron saint of the day.
In Australia, towards the end of the 19th century, a meteorologist came up with the idea of naming cyclones after politicians he didn’t like.
During the Second World War, American sailors began regularly naming hurricanes. They often gave them the name of their wives or girlfriends.
In 1950, the American Meteorological Bureau decided to systematically give a name to hurricanes and took over the alphabet of transmissions (Charlie, etc.).
Then from 1953, it began to use women’s first names. But in the 1970s, American feminists protested against this association with devastating phenomena.
Lists of tropical hurricane names are regulated by the World Meteorological Organization.
Six lists are rotated, which means that each list is rotated every six years.
For the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico and the North Atlantic, the NHC has six lists of 21 names each, one list per year.
The first names are English, Spanish, or French with reference to the countries potentially concerned.
In the case of a record year where the number of tropical storms and hurricanes exceeds 21 as in 2005, the following storms use the Greek alphabet, starting with Alpha.
In each region of the world where these storms are taking place, an organization is in charge of naming hurricanes. In the area covering North and South America, these lists are drawn up in advance. They are reused after a certain period of time unless the storm was too severe (like Andrew, Katrina, Mitch). The name is then deleted. For Europe, the meteorological service of the Free University of Berlin names all anticyclones, depressions, and hurricanes.
Those of the next hurricanes are already known. After Dorian, which has just devastated the Bahamas and is due to pass off the coast of Florida (USA), it will be Erin, which is already in training. Then there will be Fernand, Gabrielle, Humberto, Imelda … 2020 will start with Arthur, Bertha, and Christobal.
All the hurricane names given by the organization is above all a way to facilitate communication. It avoids confusion and makes it easier to identify them in warning messages to the general public.
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