There were 17 named Atlantic storms in 2017, and if we have as many again this year they will be called Alberto, Beryl, Chris, Debby, Ernesto, Florence, Gordon, Helene, Isaac, Joyce, Kirk, Leslie, Michael, Nadine, Oscar, Patty, and Rafael. If this proves to be an even busier season than the last, we will also encounter Sara, Tony, Valerie, and William.
Name That Storm
The names given each year to hurricanes are not picked at random. Various systems have been used over the years, but today’s names come from six alphabetical lists originated by the National Hurricane Center in 1953. These are now maintained by an international committee of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and are used in rotation; this year’s monikers were last seen in 2012 and will not be employed again until 2024.
Tropical systems get a name when they transition from a tropical depression into a tropical storm. A system that meets this criterion just before midnight on December 31 will get the next name on that year’s list, but if it intensifies a few minutes later in the early hours of January 1 it will get the first name on the new year’s list. It is therefore possible—although unlikely—for a storm named in one year to be active in the next.
Names beginning with Q, U, X, Y, and Z are not used for hurricanes. In the unlikely event that all 21 of the other letters are needed, any later tropical cyclones will be given names taken from the Greek alphabet. This last happened in 2005—the first year to use “V” and “W” names—when six Greek letters were employed following Wilma. Obviously, the later a name comes in the alphabet, the less likely it is to be called upon. Conversely, names beginning with “A” are almost certain to be used. The name most often seen since 1953 is Arlene, which has served 11 times.
Occasionally names have been dropped from the lists. When Fern replaced Freda in 1966 no reason was given, but since 1979 there has been a formal name retirement process. Following a particularly deadly or destructive storm the nations impacted by it can lobby the WMO to have the name retired if its future use would be inappropriate—either because it would show a lack of sensitivity or it would cause confusion. At its next annual meeting the WMO will consider the request and, if necessary, select a replacement name. Between 1950 and 2016 a total of 82 names were retired, and the WMO just today announced the retirement of last year’s Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Nate (replacing them with Harold, Idalia, Margot, and Nigel). Five names went in 2005—among them Katrina—the highest number put out to pasture in any one year.
Not all names associated with significant storms are struck from the lists. All this year’s names have been used before, multiple times, and some have been associated with major tropical cyclones in the past. Beryl, for example, struck Florida in 2012 and Ernesto was the costliest tropical cyclone of the 2006 Atlantic hurricane season. Gordon caused major damage in Jamaica and eastern Cuba before impacting Florida and much of the eastern U.S. in 1994. Gordon reappeared in 2000, 2006, and 2012—a year that also saw a slow-moving Hurricane Isaac bring storm surge and heavy flooding rains to southeastern Mississippi.
Not Done Yet
The severest category on the Saffir-Simpson Scale is Category 5, and because such storms are likely to cause catastrophic damage the names of most of them get retired. Curiously, however, Emily was not dropped in 2005 when a Category 5 storm of that name impacted Mexico (as a Category 4) before making a U.S. landfall south of Brownsville, Texas, as a Category 3 hurricane.
Typically, the names of major hurricanes that make landfall in the U.S. get retired, but Bret is another anomaly. A Category 3 Hurricane Bret struck Texas’s Padre Island in 1999, but the name was not removed from the list, probably because the storm impacted a sparsely populated region and caused little damage. Other major storms that did not have their names retired are Juan (U.S. Gulf Coast, 1985), Alberto (Southeast U.S., 1994), Dolly (U.S. Gulf Coast, Mexico, 2008), Alex (Mexico, 2010), and Lee (eastern U.S., 2011).
Let’s hope that few of this year’s names get pressed into service, and that they will all still be around for us to meet again in six years’ time.