What's in a [Storm] Name?

May 06, 2016

People like to name things, whether animals, cars, or storms, so they can more easily identify and remember them. Meteorological organizations have been naming tropical storm systems since the 1950s, which has proved popular with the general public, media, weather forecasters, and catastrophe modelers. The practice of naming storms, however, is not as simple as it may at first appear.

When did naming storms start?

People have always found it convenient to refer to major storms by associating them with the saint's day or holiday on which they occurred or giving them memorable descriptors such as The Great Gust of 1724 or the Great Hurricane of 1938. Proper names were first given to storms in the 1880s when, for humorous effect, the Australian weather forecaster Clement Wragge began naming systems after politicians he disliked.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. began officially naming storms in 1951 using the military phonetic alphabet (Alpha, Baker, Charlie, etc.), and switched to giving storms female names in 1953 based on lists from the National Hurricane Center. It wasn't until 25 years later, in 1978, that both male and female names were given to storms in the eastern North Pacific; the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico adopted the new standard in 1979.

All over the map

Today, storm names are managed by an international committee of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), an agency of the United Nations.  The committee is comprised of regional meteorological agencies, which are responsible for naming storms in their corresponding locales.

In some instances, local agencies can complicate the system by adding secondary names. In the western Pacific, for example, a storm already internationally named can acquire a second (unofficial) moniker if it passes into the area of responsibility assumed by the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA).

Where did those names come from?

Names are not picked at random, but follow carefully selected and predetermined sequences that differ in the various regions of the world. In the Atlantic and eastern North Pacific Basins, for example, the lists of names to be used are recycled every six years and only change if a name is retired for sensitivity reasons after a severely damaging storm. Each list has 21 names—one for every English letter excluding Q, U, X, Y, and Z—and if there are more storms than that, any additional tropical cyclones will be named for letters from the Greek alphabet. In the central North Pacific Basin, there are four predetermined lists of names that are used in succession, and there are five lists of names for the western Pacific. In the Philippines, PAGASA employs four different lists of 25 names that are rotated every four years, with the names of significant tropical cyclones retired.

A highly cited 2014 study showed that storms with female names kill more people because an approaching Hurricane Eloise, Laura, or Alexandra is taken less seriously, although female names continue to appear in both the U.S. and UK/Ireland storm name lists.

Other storm types get names, too

In Germany, windstorms (extratropical cyclones) have been unofficially named by the Free University of Berlin's meteorological institute since 1954. An "Adopt-a-Vortex" program that began in 2002 has enabled companies or individuals to buy naming rights, which helps fund the institute's weather observations. The Norwegian Weather Service names notable storms, and they are assigned names in Finland as well. As a result, one windstorm can be referred to by as many as three names; in 2011 the system known as Patrick in Germany was Dagmar to the Norwegians and Tapani to the Finns.

The UK and Ireland undertook their first windstorm naming initiative only in 2015. Led by the Met Office and Met Éireann, Name Our Storms is a pilot project to name windstorms that have the potential to substantially impact the UK and/or Ireland and have not already been named by the U.S. The public had a chance to submit storm names for the UK and Ireland. Names already used this year include Henry, Imogen, and Gertrude. Because of the plethora of differing naming systems employed in Europe, there is talk of developing a unified system there.

Since 2012, the Weather Channel in the U.S. has been unofficially naming notable winter storms using its own quantitative method called IMPACT— Integrated Meteorological Population and Area Calculation Tool—which compares population counts with National Weather Service winter weather warnings. Names given to storms that reach thresholds as determined by the Weather Channel and are used by some media outlets; most meteorological organizations do not adopt these winter storm names.

What now?

The naming of storm systems, when done in a cooperative manner according to meteorological data, can be a good way to clarify communication about the hazard. Because severe weather outbreaks are frequent, they are currently identified by date and region/state as providing names for every instance could be challenging and cause more confusion. Where do you think the storm naming line should be drawn?

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