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How do hurricanes get their names?
Matt Soniak at Mental Floss delves into the etymology of storm monikers
A New Jersey hair salon is protected by plywood taunting Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 28. So... who named Sandy, anyway?
A New Jersey hair salon is protected by plywood taunting Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 28. So... who named Sandy, anyway?
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Since Europeans first came to the Americas and the Caribbean, hurricanes have been named using a variety of systems. First they were named after Catholic saints. Later on, the latitude-longitude positions of a storm’s formation was used as a name. This was a little too cumbersome to use in conversation.

Military meteorologists started giving female names to storms during World War II, and in 1950 the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) adopted the method. The WMO devised a system of rotating, alphabetical names. (Names can be retired at WMO meetings by request from a nation that has been hit by the storm. The name is then not used for 10 years, which makes historic references and insurance claims easier.)

In the late-1970s, the system was given a dose of political correctness: male names were added to the Atlantic hurricanes list, as were French and Spanish names, reflecting the languages of the nations affected by the storms. (Back at an NOAA conference in 1972, Roxcy Bolton had proposed naming hurricanes after U.S. senators instead of women.) 

Today, the WMO uses six lists of 21 names (Q, U, X, Y and Z names are not used) that it cycles through every six years, with the gender of the season’s first storm alternating year to year, and genders alternating through the rest of the hurricane season. If there are more than 21 named storms in a year, as there were in 2005, the rest of the storms are named for letters in the Greek alphabet.

Occasionally, a storm suffers something of an identity crisis and has its name changed. This happens when a storm crosses from one ocean to another, or if it dies down and then redevelops.

Was my name a hurricane this year? 

If your name is Oscar, then yes. Here’s the 2012 list: Alberto, Beryl, Chris, Debby, Ernesto, Florence, Gordon, Helene, Isaac, Joyce, Kirk, Leslie, Michael, Nadine, Oscar, Patty, Rafael, Sandy, Tony, Valerie, William.

Matt Soniak

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