In the wake of the long path of Hurricane Irene, the topic of hurricane names and their origins has been front and center. While hurricane names may seem as if they are randomly chosen, there’s actually a very precise system for how hurricanes get their names.
Beginning in 1953, the National Hurricane Center, now a piece of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Commerce, has had control over naming tropical storms and hurricanes. Today, the World Meteorological Organization is in charge of maintaining these rotating lists of hurricane names.
When this official process began, only women’s names were used, but men’s names have also been used since 1979. Women’s and men’s names are alternated on a 21-name list to be used for tropical storms in a region for a given year.
In general, the names that appear on these lists are chosen to be easily recognizable as well as easily pronounced. This is helpful when multiple storms are approaching at the same time, and also is helpful for communicating to the public about specific storms and threats.
There are six lists of 21 names, and one list is used every year. That means that every seventh year one specific list gets repeated.
Therefore, the name Irene for this latest storm was taken from the 2011 list of tropical storm and hurricane names the Atlantic region. These names will be eligible for use once again in 2017. If more than 21 tropical storms are named in a single season, then letters from the Greek alphabet are used. Different regions across the globe have their own naming processes and systems.
In addition, many hurricane names are no longer in active use. Storms that were severe enough and garnered enough attention get sent to hurricane name heaven. That means you’ll never see an Atlantic Ocean hurricane named Andrew, Ike or Katrina ever again, along with several dozen other retired names. A committee put together by the WMO votes on whether or not hurricane names need to be replaced, and if so, which name should replace it.
Prior to this system of coming up with hurricane names, the tradition was somewhat ironically to use saints names as hurricane names, based on which particular saint’s day the hurricane was closest to. For example, several devastating storms which struck Puerto Rico in the 1800s were known as Hurricane Santa Ana, Hurricane San Felipe and Hurricane San Felipe the second.
This article was first published by Jake Emen on Yahoo! News on August 27, 2011