Ask SAM

Q: When I was young, I remember hurricanes always having female names. When did that change? And when did people start giving hurricanes names in the first place?

A.G.

Answer: That changed in 1979, and now the custom is to alternate between female and male names.

The National Hurricane Center first gave people’s names to hurricanes in 1953. For several years before that, the names were taken from the military phonetic alphabet, with hurricanes Able, Baker, Charlie and so on. Before then, they either were not named or were named for places they hit (such as the Great Miami Hurricane) or their times (such as the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935).

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “For several hundred years many hurricanes in the West Indies were named after the particular saint’s day on which the hurricane occurred. Ivan R. Tannehill describes in his book ‘Hurricanes’ the major tropical storms of recorded history and mentions many hurricanes named after saints. For example, there was ‘Hurricane Santa Ana’ which struck Puerto Rico with exceptional violence on July 26, 1825, and ‘San Felipe’ (the first) and ‘San Felipe’ (the second) which hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 13 in both 1876 and 1928.”

In the late 19th century, an Australian meteorologist named Clement Wragge was known to give women’s names to tropical storms.

“Initially he named the disturbances in alphabetical order, first using the Greek alphabet,” according to the 2006 profile in the magazine Weather. “Then he used characters from Greek and Roman mythology, next female names, and finally politicians (usually those he disliked but some he liked), and occasionally someone he admired, such as ‘Melba.’”

During World War II, the practice of using female names became “widespread in weather map discussions among forecasters, especially Army and Navy meteorologists who plotted the movements of storms over the wide expanses of the Pacific Ocean,” according to NOAA.

The original lists had all female names, but in 1979 half those names were dropped and male names were added, alternating between genders. The list of names is maintained and updated by an international committee of the World Meteorological Organization.

According to a spokesman at the National Hurricane Center, the six lists, each with 21 different names, are used over and over, so names of 2019 storms will be used again in 2025. However, names are sometimes retired from the list if a storm is so deadly or costly that the use of that name for a different storm would be considered inappropriate. In that case, the old name will be struck from the list at an annual meeting by the World Meteorological Organization, Region IV committee, and a different name will be selected to take its place.

You can see the current list of names at www.nhc.noaa.gov/aboutnames.shtml.

Storms are never named after specific individuals, and names beginning with Q, U, X, Y or Z are never used because there aren’t many names that begin with those letters.

If the list is exhausted because more than 21 storms form during a season, the subsequent storms are named after letters in the Greek alphabet: Alpha, Beta, Delta and so on.

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