hurricaneThe official naming of hurricanes started in 1953, when the US National Hurricane Centre created lists of women’s names with which to tag the fierce storms that raged over the Atlantic.

The use of women’s names reflected the gender bias of the time – hurricanes were destructive and unpredictable and calling them after women seemed amusing. No doubt some ex-wives and girlfriends got onto the lists.

But by 1979, attitudes had changed, and men’s names were introduced to the lists, alternating with the existing names. There are now six lists used in rotation, with 21 names each. Each list of 21 names is used once in six years.
But why name hurricanes in the first place? Well, the alternative is to give cumbersome and confusing latitude and longitude identification. A name is easier to remember, particularly when you are warning the public of an approaching hurricane.

It’s not just in the Northern hemisphere that hurricanes get personal – In the Central and Western North Pacific, hurricanes and typhoons have their own list of rotating names. The Australian Bureau of meteorology maintains three lists of names for the western, northern and eastern regions, where tropical cyclones occur, and the Seychelles Meteorological Service names hurricanes that occur in the Southwest Indian Ocean.

Before 1953, hurricanes occuring the West Indies were named after Saints’ days in Catholic tradition. The military radio code beginning Able, Baker, Charlie was briefly used, with a hurricane being named Able in 1950. But this did not provide for a rotating system of names and more than one Hurricane Able was possible, which would have led to confusion. So the new system of rotating names was introduced.

Because of the powerful nature of hurricanes and the loss of life and damage that occurs, some names are `retired’ from the lists. These include Allison, Lenny and now Katrina. This name will be replaced with another name, so there can never be another Hurricane Katrina. The fear and alarm engendered by memories of the last Katrina would be too great for people traumatized by that event.

But what happens if – horrible as it sounds – all 21 of that current season’s names get used up? Well, it already happened in the disastrous 2005 season that saw Katrina. After the 21st hurricane, Wilma, another one formed in October. The World Meteorological Organization, which is now the body responsible for naming hurricanes, was forced to go the Greek alphabet, the fallback system. The new hurricane was named Alpha. There are 24 new names available from the Greek alphabet, from Alpha to Omega.
No hurricane ever has its name changed during its lifetime in one zone, but tropical storms, cyclones and hurricanes may be renamed if they cross from one zone to another or over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

The naming of hurricanes will continue through future seasons, and alas, so will the retirement of some names due to the destructive power of these forces of nature. Apparently no research has been done on the popularity of these names for babies after the storm hits – but it seems a safe bet that, for many new parents, Katrina won’t be a popular baby name choice for a long time to come.