The Name Game: How Do Atlantic Tropical Cyclones Get Named?

During World War II, tropical cyclones were informally given women’s names by United States Air Force and Navy meteorologists who were monitoring and forecasting tropical cyclones over the Pacific. Sometimes the tropical cyclones were named after the forecasters’ girlfriends or wives.

In the North Atlantic, the naming practice was started formally in 1950 when tropical cyclones were identified by the phonetic alphabet (Able-Baker-Charlie- etc.). In 1953 the United States Weather Bureau switched to women’s names.

In 1979, men’s names were introduced and were alternated with female names. Today, there are six pre-selected lists of names and they are maintained and updated by the Hurricane Committee within Region VI of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

The Director of the U.S. National Hurricane Center is the Chairman of this Hurricane Committee which consists of 26 members. These members are primarily directors of national meteorological services within the Caribbean, Central America, Mexico, Canada and Bermuda. The six lists of names are used in rotation. Thus, the 2007 list will be used again in 2013.

When a storm produces considerable damage or loss of life, any member of the WMO Hurricane Committee may recommend that the name be “retired.”

Retiring a name is an act of respect for its victims, and reduces confusion in the insurance, legal or scientific literature. A retired name is replaced with a like-gender name beginning with the same letter.

For example, Hurricane Luis was a category 4 Cape Verde hurricane that wreaked harm and havoc on the northeastern most of the Leeward Islands in 1995, resulting in an estimated 16 deaths and $2 billion in damages. Some countries recommended that the name Luis be retired and proposed the replacement name, Lorenzo, for consideration (and vote) by the 26 members of the Hurricane Committee. This name was accepted and was used six years later in 2001.

That year, the name Lorenzo was used on a Tropical Storm that remained over the North Atlantic without causing any significant impacts. This year, Lorenzo came up again and was used on the tropical cyclone that made landfall today in Mexico.

While I was the Director of the National Hurricane Center and Chairman of the regional Hurricane Committee from 2000 through 2006, I received countless requests from folks asking me to name a hurricane after them or someone they knew.

A couple of people even offered money if the Committee added their names to the lists. I saved a file with the requests and occasionally submitted one of the names for consideration. Any name submitted had to meet some fundamental criteria. It should be short and readily understood when broadcast.

Further, the names must be culturally sensitive and not convey some unintended and potentially inflammatory meaning. The potential for misunderstanding increases when you figure that in the Atlantic basin there are numerous countries, reflecting an international mix of English, Spanish, French and Dutch cultures.

Although some of the names may sound a little foreign to us in the United States, we need to remember that the other countries in the region have just as much of a right to name the tropical cyclones as we do. The Hurricane Committee has served us well by coming up with names agreed to by all the countries of the region.

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