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How are hurricanes named and why do the names get retired?

While the 2022 Atlantic hurricane season started slow NOAA has begun using its list of names at a fastest clip. When did storms start getting names and why?

How hurricanes get named

The 2022 Atlantic hurricane season got off to a slow start but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and FEMA advise not to be complacent. Every year NOAA makes predictions about the number and severity of the dangerous cyclones, and once again this year is expected to be above normal.

The agency expects a greater number of storms to form in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic region this year thanks to the La Niña weather phenomenon which brings warmer than average temperatures to the region. As with any season the predicted fourteen to twenty-one named storms, with between six to ten becoming hurricanes, will all have a name waiting for them when they form.

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When did NOAA begin naming storms?

In the mid twentieth century, the US government began naming storms to simplify communications and informing the public about them. Before, NOAA often used positions or latitude and longitude to communicate about storms but this becomes very confusing when there is more than one present in a specific area at a time.

A storm is given a name when its winds reach more than thirty miles per hour. The World Meteorological Organization, which selects the names, upgrades the storm to a hurricane or typhoon if the winds reach more than 119 miles per hours.

Neither the World Meteorological Organization nor NOAA invented this practice. In Puerto Rico records show that as early as 1876, before becoming a colony of the United States, some on the island would christen each storm with the name of a Saint. A meteorologist in Australia also popularized the practice in the 19th century, which was adopted by the US in the 1950s.

In the first few decades of using this method NOAA had only selected women’s names for storms. However, in the 1970s this practice was ended and traditionally male names were used. This did lead to a phenomenon noted by social scientists where storms with female names were thought of as weaker and less of a threat; highlighting the ways in which gender bias informs a society’s perception of a threat. It is important to remember that the severity of a storm has no influence over the name that is selected. Quite the opposite. 

Twenty-one storm names have already been chosen for each of the next six years, letters Q, U, X, Y and Z are not used. As the storms emerge they will be given a name in alphabetical order, and should there be more than twenty-one, the names will be taken from an alternate list approved by the WMO. The lists are recycled every six years.

What names have been retired?

NOAA has reported that “if a storm is so deadly or costly that the future use of its name on a different storm would be inappropriate for obvious reasons of sensitivity,” it can be retired. Since 2000, forty-four names have been taken out of circulation. This compares to twenty-two names retired between 1980 and 1999. This means that since the beginning of this century more than double the names have been retired than the previous two decades --an indicator of the impact of climate change on storm severity.


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