Updated May 23, 2019 - Science

How hurricanes are named

Hurricane ravaged Florida

A beachfront neighborhood decimated by Category 5 Hurricane Michael in 2018. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Prior to the 1950s, there was no uniform way to name hurricanes. Some used saints' names, others used longitude and latitude. In 1953, that all changed when the U.S. started using female names to identify storms. By 1979, the use of female and male names was adopted for storms in the northern Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.

Why it matters: Naming hurricanes stemmed from the need to make communication about such destructive storms more salient and less confusing, especially if two storms were happening at the same time.

Driving the news: NOAA's Climate Prediction Center is predicting a “near-normal” hurricane season this year with a likely range of 9 to 15 named storms of which 4 to 8 could become hurricanes.

Details: The United Nations' World Meteorological Organization maintains the list of potential hurricane names. Names are given to tropical storms when they have sustained wind speeds higher than 39 mph. Once a storm reaches sustained winds of 74 mph or higher, it's considered a hurricane, and it maintains the same name it was given when it became a tropical storm.

  • There are six lists of names, each starting with a different letter of the alphabet — and each list is on a six-year rotation.
    • This year's list is identical to 2013's, a year which saw no storm names retired.
    • The lists don't include the letters Q, U, X, Y and Z.
  • In rare instances where there are more than 21 tropical cyclones in one year, names are then given from the Greek alphabet.
    • Names are taken off the list if the hurricane caused significant damage or casualties — for example, there will never be another Hurricane Katrina, Sandy or Maria.
  • 2019's hurricane season officially begins on June 1, and the names on deck are: Andrea, Barry, Chantal, Dorian, Erin, Fernand, Gabrielle, Humberto, Imelda, Jerry, Karen, Lorenzo, Melissa, Nestor, Olga, Pablo, Rebekah, Sebastien, Tanya, Van and Wendy.

A "hurricane" is the name given to systems that develop over the Atlantic or the eastern Pacific Ocean. Tropical storms that develop in other places are called "typhoons" or "tropical cyclones" — and the WMO also maintains the lists of names for those.

  • Some countries, like the Philippines, use their own names so a storm is more relevant to their population.

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