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How and why hurricanes get their names

Hurricane Michael caused significant structural damage to the majority of Tyndall Air Force Base and the surrounding area in October of 2018.

RYAN CONROY/U.S. AIR FORCE

By JACK WILLIAMS | Special To The Washington Post | Published: June 4, 2019

Naming hurricanes and big wildfires is now such an ingrained part of our culture that most people don't think about how and why naming began or how storms or fires acquire their names.

Names are the one thing hurricanes and wildfires have in common. Both are named soon after they form.

The reasons are similar for both: Unique names avoid confusion when two or more similar events are occurring in the same general region such as a state for wildfires or a tropical cyclone basin such as the North Atlantic, which includes the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.

Wildfires are named either by the authority that dispatches firefighters or by the firefighters after they reach the scene and name it.

For example, California's costly and deadly 2018 "Camp Fire" was named for Camp Creek Road, the location where the fire started. The fire is known to have killed at least 85 people, and its $16.5 billion cost made it the world's costliest natural disaster in 2018.

While names based on a location work well for wildfires, they wouldn't work for hurricanes and other kinds of tropical cyclones because these storms are almost always changing as steering winds shift.

Tropical cyclone names are selected years in advance with names of especially deadly or strong or damaging storms being retired. World Meteorological Organization regional committees maintain the lists of names for the various tropical cyclone basins.

In any basin, light winds flowing around an area of low atmospheric pressure is known as a "tropical depression." When a depression's sustained winds reach 39 mph forecasters describe it as a "tropical storm" and give it the next name from the appropriate list.

When the sustained winds reach 74 mph a tropical storm becomes a hurricane in the North Atlantic and in the Pacific east of the international date line, a typhoon in the northern Pacific west of the Date Line, and a cyclone anywhere in the southern Pacific and Indian oceans.

Why storms are named

The National Hurricane Center says on its website: "Experience shows that the use of short, distinctive names in written as well as spoken communications is quicker and less subject to error than the older, more cumbersome latitude-longitude identification methods. These advantages are especially important in exchanging detailed storm information . . . especially when two or more tropical storms occur at the same time.

"For example, one hurricane can be moving slowly westward in the Gulf of Mexico, while at exactly the same time another hurricane can be moving rapidly northward along the Atlantic coast."

"In the past," the NHC says, "confusion and false rumors have arisen when storm advisories broadcast by radio stations were mistaken for warnings concerning an entirely different storm located hundreds of miles away."

During World War II U.S. Navy meteorologists in the Pacific sometimes informally named typhoons, using the names of wives or girlfriends. Other names were used at times, such as for the typhoon that seriously damaged the U.S. Navy's Third Fleet on June 5, 1945. Some accounts call it Typhoon Connie, while others call it "Typhoon Viper."

The National Hurricane Center started officially naming hurricanes, but not tropical storms, in 1951 using the international spelling alphabet in use at the time (able, baker, charlie, etc.).

This system was used again in 1952, but forecasters feared using the same names to refer to storms, and to spell out words could confuse radio conversations between hurricane hunter airplanes and the Hurricane Center.

For the 1953 season, the Hurricane Center began using a preselected list of female names for Atlantic Basin storms. The season turned out to be active, with 14 storms, six of which became "major hurricanes with winds of 111 mph or stronger.

At times during the 1953 season, forecasters were following more than one storm at the same time; the names enabled them to clearly indicate which storm they were taking about in bulletins and warnings.

Managing hurricane names

Today the World Meteorological Organization's Hurricane Committee manages hurricane names while similar committees manage names in other basins.

A set of six lists of alphabetized storm names is in rotation. However, in the case of a particularly deadly or damaging storm, that storm's name is retired, and a replacement starting with the same letter is selected to take its place.

The decision whether to retire and replace a name in a given season is made at the annual session of the Hurricane Committee in the spring of the following year.

The U.S. Weather Bureau began retiring hurricane names in 1956 after major hurricanes Carol, Edna and Hazel struck the Northeastern United States in 1955.

The biggest change in the Atlantic Basin naming system was instituted in 1979 when alternating women's and men's names were introduced. And this is also when the six-year set of storm names was installed.

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