How Do Hurricanes Get Their Names?

By @nadinedeninno on

With Hurricane Irene set to hit the East Coast as early as Saturday, many people wonder, how do hurricanes get their names in the first place?

Hurricane names are managed by a committee at the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), which recycles an alphabetized list of names on rotation every six years. The lists were originally maintained by the National Hurricane Center (NHC) from 1953-1979 until the NHC passed the reigns to the WMO.

Currently, there are six lists, one per year, in rotation. Each list comprised of 21 names reappears every six years, with the 2011 list set to be recycled in 2017. Only female names were used in the rotation before 1979, until male names were introduced to the lists.

Names were given to hurricanes as an easier, error-free way of referring to a hurricane, rather than by region or longitude and latitude coordinates. The naming system in place also makes it easier for clarification purposes, as multiple hurricanes could be happening simultaneously in nearby regions.

Experience shows that the use of short, distinctive given names in written as well as spoken communications is quicker and less subject to error than the older more cumbersome latitude-longitude identification methods, the NOAA explains on its Web site.

According to the NHC, hurricanes were previously named after saints, like Hurricane Santa Ana, which struck Puerto Rico in 1825. Women's names are thought to have emerged before the end of the 19th century. Tropical storms in the Pacific were named for wives and girlfriends by Army and Navy meteorologists throughout the 1940's, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.

If one year exceeds the amount covered by the 21 names on the list, the WMO uses names from the Greek alphabet, including Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta.

The WMO also handles retiring names and altering the lists for reasons of sensitivity or inappropriateness during committee meetings. Devastating hurricanes like Igor in 2010, 2008's Ike and Katrina in 2005, have all been retired as hurricane names due to the extreme damage caused in those years.

Hurricane Irene, considered a category two hurricane, is set to hit the East Coast this weekend. The last Hurricane Irene in 2005 was similar, as the category two storm formed at the end of August and was seen near the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

The complete list of 2011 Atlantic Hurricane names is as follows:

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