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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Why are hurricanes named after people, and in a certain order?

Why are hurricanes named after people, and in a certain order?
Why are hurricanes named after people, and in a certain order? ask Melissa Vallance and Kelli Day, students in Holtsville, NY.

While a tornado would have skipped to the next county and disappeared before you could call it "Ralph," hurricanes take their sweet time building up their winds, moving towards coastlines and back out to sea at a stately pace. So it's important to identify these big storms for pilots, ships, and people living in a hurricane's path.

In the U.S. before the 1950s, hurricanes were identified by latitude and longitude, a system that became confusing when there was more than one tropical cyclone brewing at a time. In the early 50s, the U.S. decided to name storms using the Army/Navy phonetic alphabet, devised for World War II military communications: Able, Baker, Charlie, etc. So in 1952, the news reported on Hurricane Dog, Hurricane Easy, and Hurricane Fox. (If the tropical storm season had been busier, coast-dwellers might have been threatened by Hurricanes How, Item, Love, Sugar, Uncle, X-ray, and Zebra.)

Human beings have a long history of personifying nature (as in Thor, the Norse god of thunder), so using human names for big storms makes sense. Hurricanes that hit the West Indies in the 19th and early 20th centuries were named after saints. And in the 1940s, weather forecasters often gave hurricanes women's names, like World War 2 fliers naming their fighter planes.

In 1953, the weather service officially switched to women's names, and in the 1970s, men's names were added to the mix. Which is why, today, we can be rained on by a hurricane named Richard.

Lists of names are selected for different ocean regions. To make naming easy, there are 6 years of alphabetized lists, which then repeat. In 2008, the first Atlantic hurricane will be named Arthur, the next Bertha. (Names beginning with Q, U, X, Y, and Z are out, since there aren't enough of them. Which probably pleases the world's Quentins and Zoes.)

But if your name does happen to match that of a particularly destructive hurricane, you may feel a bit glum until the storms recedes in the collective memory. One of the most memorably destructive tropical storms in history was 2005's Hurricane Katrina. According to the Social Security Administration, the popularity of the name Katrina for new babies sank from a ranking of 246 in 2005 to 382 in 2006.

Names can often seem silly (it's hard to take Typhoon Teddy seriously), and some have suggested naming storms only after truly scary people (like Hurricane Hitler). Others have suggested disliked vegetables (Tropical Cyclone Rutabaga), or Hollywood couples (Hurricane Brangelina).

These days, the World Meteorological Organization creates and maintains the rotating lists. Like the team number of a great baseball player, names of the most destructive storms are retired from the roster. In hurricane-heavy 2005, names ran out. So after hurricane Wilma, storms were named for letters of the Geek alphabet: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, and Zeta.

For a list of names of future tropical cyclones, visit
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