Why hur­ri­canes have hu­man names — and who picks them

Calgary Herald - - CLASSIFIED - TrisTin Hop­per

There is no regimented nam­ing sys­tem for ter­ror­ist at­tacks, ship­wrecks or wild­fires. But long be­fore a storm ever morphs into a killer hurricane, it’s al­ready bear­ing a hu­man name given to it by the World Me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal Or­ga­ni­za­tion. Here’s a brief out­line of why the WMO does this, and why the hurricane about to make land­fall on the U.S. east coast is named Flo.

IT’S EAS­IER TO RUN FROM SOME­THING WITH A NAME

When a hurricane ef­fec­tively wiped Galve­ston, Texas, from the map in 1900, lo­cals knew it only as “the storm.” Only later would Galve­ston’s shat­tered sur­vivors come to call it the “Great Storm of 1900.” As storm fore­cast­ing im­proved in the 20th cen­tury, an emerg­ing storm would be iden­ti­fied based on its co-or­di­nates, mean­ing that a storm like Hurricane Florence would bear a clunky name along the lines of “the Cat­e­gory 3 storm at 30.4 N 71.8 W.” Only af­ter the Sec­ond World War did it be­come of­fi­cial pol­icy to give them names. “The use of eas­ily re­mem­bered names greatly re­duces con­fu­sion when two or more trop­i­cal storms oc­cur at the same time,” reads the long­stand­ing Na­tional Hurricane Cen­ter ex­pla­na­tion. Storms are named in chrono­log­i­cal or­der from one of six lists of 21 names, which are ro­tated each year. Hurricane Florence got its name sim­ply be­cause it was the sixth ma­jor storm of the sea­son, and so was given the sixth name on the 2018 list. If it had started hit­ting radar screens just a few days ear­lier or later, it could just as eas­ily have been named Gor­don, Ernesto or Debby. Names are re­cy­cled from year to year, but if they’re tacked onto a par­tic­u­larly de­struc­tive hurricane they will be per­ma­nently re­tired. Four storm names got this du­bi­ous dis­tinc­tion in 2017: Har­vey, Irma, Maria and Nate. They’ve since been re­placed with Harold, Idalia, Mar­got and Nigel.

AVOID­ING CON­TRO­VERSY IS PART OF THE POINT

Don is in­deed among the 126 names for At­lantic trop­i­cal storms, and ap­peared on the 2017 list. That year, Trop­i­cal Storm Don fiz­zled out with barely a men­tion, but if fate had or­dained that it be­come a cat­e­gory five hurricane, it’s en­tirely pos­si­ble that the Gulf Coast could have been lashed by a dis­as­ter bear­ing the name of the U.S. pres­i­dent. In the early days of me­te­o­rol­ogy, the Bri­tish fore­caster Cle­ment Wragge would oc­ca­sion­ally nick­name a storm af­ter a politi­cian he dis­liked. But today’s cu­rated list means that mod­ern me­te­o­rol­o­gists are able to avoid any sus­pi­cion that they are us­ing storm names to sub­tly trans­mit their thoughts on pol­i­tics or the lat­est round of Grammy nom­i­na­tions. The only cri­te­ria for storm names is that they be sim­ple and fa­mil­iar to peo­ple in storm-af­fected ar­eas. The list of At­lantic storm names, for in­stance, in­cludes a lot of names like Cris­to­bal and Edouard that are fa­mil­iar to Caribbean pop­u­la­tions. A sim­i­lar list kept for Cen­tral North Pa­cific hur­ri­canes, mean­while, fea­tures mainly Hawai­ian names like “Moke” and “Walaka.”

BAD SIGN IF YOU EVER SEE A HURRICANE KAPPA

Each sea­son there are only 21 names to as­sign to trop­i­cal storms. In the rare in­stance that there are more than 21 named storms, me­te­o­rol­o­gists start work­ing their way through the Greek al­pha­bet. That was what hap­pened in 2005. Af­ter a par­tic­u­larly bru­tal hurricane sea­son that in­cluded Hurricane Ka­t­rina and Hurricane Rita, the name list was com­pletely used up, mean­ing that the year closed with Trop­i­cal Storm Al­pha. It was the first time that the World Me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal Or­ga­ni­za­tion ran out of names.

HUR­RI­CANES USED TO BE EX­CLU­SIVELY NAMED AF­TER LADIES

The best­selling 1941 novel Storm an­thro­po­mor­phizes a fic­tional win­ter storm, giv­ing it the name Maria. Me­te­o­rol­o­gists at the time, who were al­most all men, liked the book so much that they started in­for­mally nam­ing storms af­ter their wives and girl­friends. This prac­tice con­tin­ued un­til the women’s move­ment suc­cess­fully got men’s names added to the lists by 1979. “Women are hu­man be­ings and deeply re­sent be­ing ar­bi­trar­ily as­so­ci­ated with dis­as­ter,” read one 1970 protest let­ter sent to the U.S. Na­tional Weather Ser­vice by the Na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Women. In 2014, a study briefly at­tained world­wide no­tice when it con­cluded that fe­male-named storms killed more peo­ple due to sex­ism. Pub­lished in the Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tional Academy of Sci­ences, the study held that peo­ple were less likely to take fe­male names se­ri­ously, and thus failed to take ad­e­quate pre­cau­tions. The study has since been bar­raged with ac­cu­sa­tions of sta­tis­ti­cal slop­pi­ness, so it’s prob­a­bly safe to as­sume that Hurricane Florence isn’t go­ing to dis­pro­por­tion­ately de­stroy the homes of chau­vin­ists.

IT’S IN­EVITABLE THAT ALL 126 STORM NAMES WILL EVEN­TU­ALLY BE APPENDED TO A TRAGEDY

Mi­nor Hurricane Ka­tri­nas ap­peared in 1967, 1975 and 1981. Florence’s pedi­gree is even older; it’s the only orig­i­nal “f ” name that hasn’t yet been re­tired. There have been five other Hurricane Florences in the At­lantic since 1953, and four Trop­i­cal Storm Florences. One of the most chill­ing as­pects of look­ing at the cu­rated list of At­lantic storm names is know­ing that ev­ery sin­gle name will even­tu­ally be as­signed to a storm that will kill dozens, sink neigh­bour­hoods and pos­si­bly dev­as­tate en­tire cities. The names Hurricane Owen or Hurricane Ophe­lia might not mean much to us now, but it’s only a mat­ter of time be­fore they’re just as in­fa­mous as Hurricane An­drew or Hurricane Sandy.

ESA / NASA VIA GETTY IMAGES

Hurricane Florence churns through the At­lantic Ocean to­ward the U.S. East Coast on Wed­nes­day. Florence was ex­pected to stall along the coast of the Caroli­nas, bring­ing with it tor­ren­tial rain and high winds through Thurs­day.

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