Science & Tech

The Naming of Natural Disasters

By Yuto K. ’23

Ana, Bill, Claudette, Danny, Elsa, Fred, Grace, Henri, Ida, Julian, Kate, Larry, Mindy, Nicholas, Odette, Peter, Rose, Sam, Teresa, Victor, Wanda. All these names are the names of tropical cyclones (hurricanes, tropical storms, typhoons) that have occurred in 2021. So why exactly are these names the ones that are associated with hurricanes and tropical storms?

The practice of naming natural disasters began in the 1950s and was mainly to provide more clarity to the public in the event that more than one tropical cyclone was occurring at the same time. The naming process is different depending on the region of the tropical cyclone. There are eight basins, four in the northern hemisphere (North Atlantic, Eastern Pacific, Western Pacific, and North Indian) and four in the southern hemisphere (South-West, Australian, Southern Pacific, and South Atlantic).

The names that were listed in the first paragraph are all from the North Atlantic Basin. The region consists of areas like the United States Atlantic and Gulf Coast, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. This basin is also where some of the deadliest and most costly tropical cyclones have occurred, such as Harvey (2017), Maria (2017), Sandy (2012), and Katrina (2005). 

The tropical storms are named by the United States National Hurricane Center and there are six rotating lists of names. For example, the list in 2021 is the same as the one used in 2015. Each alphabetical list has 21 names (as the letters Q, U, X, Y, Z are skipped). The names alternate between male and female and also alternate which name starts the cycle (for example this year it was Ana which is considered a female name, and the year before it was Arthur which is typically a male name). Starting this year, in the event that all the names on the list are exhausted, there is an auxiliary list that would be used instead of just following the Greek alphabet. 

However, the lists do have minor changes as some of the names are considered retired. Names are retired when a storm is considered very deadly or damaging and is decided upon in a conference the following year. For example, in 2015, two names were retired (Tropical Storm Erika and Hurricane Joaquin). For this year, Erika was replaced with Elsa while Joaquin was replaced with Julian. In total there have been 93 names that have been retired since the 1950s when this practice was adopted.

The Eastern Pacific Basin, which consists of areas like the Western Coast of the United States, is divided into two regions: the North Pacific, which is east of 140°W, and the Central North Pacific, which is between 140°W and 180°. The National Hurricane Center in Miami is responsible for naming any tropical cyclone that occurs in the North Pacific, while the Pacific Hurricane Center in Honolulu is responsible for naming any that occurs in the Central North Pacific region. The naming method in the North Pacific region is very similar to that of the North Atlantic basin. There are six lists of names in the rotation and also alternates between names that are considered male and female. The only key difference between the North Atlantic and North Pacific regions is that the North Pacific region only skips two letters of the alphabet (Q and U), while the North Atlantic Region skips five letters. 

The Central North Pacific Region is a little more unique when it comes to its naming method. The names are all considered Hawaiian (Ex: Akoni, Ema, Hone, Iona), and there are only four lists of names instead of six. Each list is comprised of only twelve names (A, E, H, I, K, L, M, N, O, P, U, W) due to the fact that there are not as many tropical cyclones in the region. Also, the lists are used consecutively instead of their being an annual list like the North Pacific region. 

The naming of tropical cyclones that occur in the Western Pacific region is much more international than the previous regions that have been mentioned. The naming is done officially by the Japanese Meteorological Agency, however, fourteen countries contributed to the lists of the names. In 1998, Cambodia, China, North Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Laos, Macau, Malaysia, Micronesia, Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, United States, and Vietnam all submitted 10 names of their choosing. There are a total of five lists and each list consists of twenty-eight names (two from each country) that are used consecutively, similar to the Central North Pacific Region. 

The North Indian Basin also uses a similar naming method to that of the Western Pacific region. The Indian Meteorological Department officially names the tropical cyclones, however, Bangladesh, India, Iran, Maldives, Myanmar, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen all contribute names to the list. In 2020, the original list of names that was formed in 2004 was exhausted so thirteen new lists were created. 

There has been controversy regarding the names of tropical cyclones in the past. From the 1950s to the beginning of the 1980s, the names were exclusively names that would be considered female. Although the true reasons for this are unknown, justification for this was that female names created more “urgency” and “fear.” Predictably, sexist remarks and clichés were often attached when talking about tropical cyclones and weathermen also talked about the tropical cyclones as if they were women. After much protest from female meteorologists and activists, male names were finally added to the lists in 1986. 

Before doing research on how these tropical cyclones are named, I always thought that the naming of these natural disasters was random other than following the letters of the alphabet. It turns out that much more thought goes into the naming of these tropical cyclones than most people would expect. 

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