Sci-Tech

Who chooses the names of hurricanes?

By Rebecca Davis 31 August 2011

Why Hurricane Irene and not Hurricane Britney or Hurricane Nomalanga? The choice of names for hurricanes is not merely a matter of meteorologists’ whimsy. By REBECCA DAVIS.

We have an English weatherman to thank for the practice of naming hurricanes. Clement Wragge (1852-1922, nickname “Inclement” Wragge) was the finest meteorologist of his time. Wragge started off by naming cyclones after the letters of the Greek alphabet, but followed on with names of characters from Polynesian mythology, before deciding to call them after politicians. It’s unclear whether his choices were influenced by his own political leanings.

But after Wragge’s death, the practice fell out of use for 60 years, until US authorities decided during WWII that attaching names to storms would better help capture the public imagination and serve to better facilitate the spread of weather warnings. Initially they received the names of random nouns – “Dog”, “Love”, etc – but three years later, the choice was made to follow the naval protocol of naming ships after women, and they began applying female names to hurricanes. Because meteorologists got tired of coming up with names, they standardised the choices into six annual lists, which they now work through alphabetically on a rotating basis.

With the spread of feminist activism in the 70s, the World Meteorological Organisation was persuaded that it was a bit sexist to only use female names, so from 1979, hurricanes have been named alternately after boys and girls. The names were always overwhelmingly WASPy, so a few French and Spanish names have also been added, though no African ones as yet.

If a hurricane is particularly destructive, the name gets retired. That’s why the world will never again see a Hurricane Katrina. That’ll teach you, Katrina. DM



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