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Subject: B1) How and why are tropical cyclones named?

Contributed by Chris Landsea (NHC) and Neal Dorst (HRD)

For listings of the current names being used see B2.

Tropical cyclones are named to provide ease of communication between forecasters and the general public regarding forecasts, watches, and warnings. Since the storms can often last a week or longer and that more than one can be occurring in the same basin at the same time, names can reduce the confusion about what storm is being described.

For much of history, tropical cyclones were only given designations post facto. After they had come ashore and done much distruction, they would be commemorated by being named either for the Saint's day they happened on (such as the San Felipe hurricanes 1876,1928) or by some characteristic (the Salty hurricane 1810, the Yankee hurricane 1935).

The first use of a proper name for a tropical cyclone was by Clement Wragge, an Australian forecaster late in the 19th century. He first designated tropical cyclones by the letters of the Greek alphabet, then started using South Sea Island girls' names. When the newly constituted Australian national government failed to create a federal weather bureau and appoint him director, Wragge began naming cyclones "after political figures whom he disliked. By properly naming a hurricane, the weatherman could publicly describe a politician (who perhaps was not too generous with weather-bureau appropriations) as 'causing great distress' or 'wandering aimlessly about the Pacific.' "Dunn and Miller (1960).

Although Wragge's naming practice lapsed when his Queensland weather bureau closed in 1903, fourty years later the idea inspired author George R. Stewart. In his 1941 novel "Storm", a junior meteorologist named Pacific extratropical storms after former girlfriends. The novel was widely read, especially by US Army Air Forces and Navy meteorologists during World War II. When Reid Bryson, E.B. Buxton, and Bill Plumley were assigned to a USAAF base on Saipan in 1944 they had to forecast any tropical cyclones affecting operations. They decided (à la Stewart) to name them after their wives. In 1945, the armed services publicly adopted a list of women's names for typhoons of the western Pacific using the names of officers' wives assigned to forward forecast centers on Guam and the Philippines. However, the Air Forces were unable to persuade the U.S. Weather Bureau (USWB) to adopt a similar practice for Atlantic hurricanes.

Starting in 1947, the Air Force Hurricane Office in Miami began designating tropical cyclones of the North Atlantic Ocean using the Army/Navy phonetic alphabet (Able-Baker-Charlie-etc.) in internal communications. During the busy 1950 hurricane season there were three hurricanes occuring simultaneously in the Atlantic basin, causing considerable confusion. Grady Norton of the USWB's Miami Hurricane Warning Center then decided to use the Air Force's naming system in public bulletins and in his year-end summary. By the next year, these names began appearing in newspaper articles.

This practice proved popular. However, in 1952 a new International phonetic alpahbet was adopted (Alpha-Beta-Charlie-etc.) which caused some confusion about which names were to be used. So in 1953, the US Weather Bureau finally acceded to the Armed Services' practice of using women's names. This was both controversial and popular. In 1978, under political pressure, the US National Hurricane Center (NHC) requested that the WMO's Region IV Hurricane Committee (which had just taken control of the list) switch to a hurricane name list that alternated men's and women's names following the practice adopted by Australia's Bureau of Meteorology in 1975. This was first implemented in the eastern Pacific then in 1979 in the Atlantic.

A rare hurricane near Hawai'i in 1950 was called Hiki (Hawai'ian for Able). But an official name list for tropical cyclones near the islands wasn't adopted until 1959. The next year a list was also drawn up for the entire Northeast Pacific basin administered by the Weather Bureau office in San Francisco. In 1978, both men's and women's names were utilized.

The Northwest Pacific basin tropical cyclones were given women's names officially starting in 1945 and men's names were also included beginning in 1979. As of 1 January 2000, tropical cyclones in the Northwest Pacific basin are now being named from a new and very different list of names. The new names are primarily Asian names and were contributed by all the nations and territories that are members of the WMO's Typhoon Committee. These newly selected names have two major differences from the rest of the world's tropical cyclone name rosters.

  1. The names by and large are not personal names. There are a few men's and women's names, but the majority are names of flowers, animals, birds, trees, or even foods, etc, while some are descriptive adjectives.

  2. The names will not be allotted in alphabetical order, but are arranged by contributing nation with the countries being alphabetized.

The North Indian Ocean region tropical cyclones were named as of 2006. The Southwest Indian Ocean tropical cyclones were first named during the 1960/1961 season.

The Australian and South Pacific region (east of 90E, south of the equator) started giving women's names to the storms for the 1964/1965 season and both men's and women's names for the 1974/1975 season.

A rare South Atlantic storm in 2004 was post facto given the name Catarina. Another such system in 2010 was designated Anita after the fact. Starting in 2011, a name list was begun for the South Atlantic basin using mostly Brazilian designations.

Last revised June 1, 2018

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