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NHC'S Bill Read: A Hurricane by Any Other Name. . . .

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Satellite photo of Hurricane Dora, July21,  2011

Guest blog by Bill Read, Director of NOAA's National Hurricane Center

One of the customs of my job as Director that has been most interesting is the practice of naming of tropical cyclones. 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 September 13 in both 1876 and 1928.

Prior to the current naming scheme, storms were identified mostly by the current position (latitude and longitude). Not all of us are geographically oriented, and experience shows that the use of short, distinctive given names in written as well as spoken communications is quicker and less subject to error than the older more cumbersome latitude-longitude identification methods. In the pre-Internet, 24/7 news cycle era, these advantages were important in exchanging detailed storm information between hundreds of widely scattered stations, coastal bases and ships at sea.

While not officially adopted until after 1950, the use of common people names dates back to the last century. An early example of the use of a woman's name for a storm (a winter storm called “Maria”) was in the novel Storm, by George R. Stewart, published by Random House in 1941, also filmed by Walt Disney. During World War II, this informal naming practice became widespread in weather map discussions among forecasters, especially Air Force and Navy meteorologists who plotted the movements of storms over the wide expanses of the Pacific Ocean.

In 1953, the United States abandoned a confusing two-year old plan to name storms by a phonetic alphabet (Abel, Baker, Charlie) when a new, international phonetic alphabet was introduced. That year, the U.S. National Hurricane Center began using female names for storms, a practice that continued through 1978. In 1979, male and female names were included in lists for the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. Six lists are used in rotation. Thus, the 2011 list will be used again in 2017.

The lists of names for both the Atlantic and Eastern Pacific basins are maintained and updated by an international committee of the World Meteorological Organization. The Director of the National Hurricane Center has the honor of chairing the committee, which consists of a representative from each member nation.   Usually during March of each year, the committee meets to review practices from the previous season.One of the many agenda items the committee works on is the reviewing of impacts from the previous season and a nomination and voting process for “retiring” names of particularly noteworthy storms. The discussions can be pretty passionate! Once a name is voted into retirement, members nominate and then vote on a suitable replacement. Our basin has many cultures, and coming up with universally common names is challenging. Major languages are taken into consideration including English, Spanish, and French. We also have Dutch-speaking islands in the Caribbean plus a number of indigenous or local languages.

In the event that more than 21 named tropical cyclones occur in the Atlantic basin in a season, additional storms will take names from the Greek alphabet: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and so on. If a storm forms in the off-season, it will take the next name in the list based on the current calendar date. For example, if a tropical cyclone formed on December 28th, it would take the name from the previous season's list of names. If a storm formed in February, it would be named from the subsequent season's list of names.

The naming of storms is not just a Western Hemisphere practice. All regions of the tropics subject to tropical cyclones have adopted naming schemes for the same reasoning we do in the Atlantic.

For more information on naming of storms, visit http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/aboutnames.shtml.

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