How are hurricanes named?

Mon Sep 14 2020

Waves crashing on a rocky shorline as storm clouds gather

The National Weather Service started using women’s names for storms in 1953, and by 1978, both men's and women’s names for Northern Pacific storms were in rotation (hooray, equality!). The system was so successful that by 1979, Atlantic storms got this naming convention, too.

The World Meteorological Organization now maintains a list of names to use for storms. Women’s and men’s names alternate throughout the year in alphabetical order. There are 21 names each year, and names can be repeated after six years unless they are retired out of respect. So the 2020 hurricane names will be used again in 2026.

WMO members of each region propose names for Atlantic and Eastern Pacific storms, and they’re approved each year. Some areas, like the northern Indian Ocean, give tropical cyclones numbers instead of names.

Hurricane names in order

Below are 2020, 2021, and 2022 tropical storm names. If more than 21 tropical storms happen in any given year, the additional storms will take their names from the Greek alphabet in order: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, Zeta, Eta, Theta, Iota, Kappa, Lambda, Mu, Nu, Xi, Omicron, Pi, Rho, Sigma, Tau, Upsilon, Phi, Chi, Psi, and Omega.

The last time we dipped into the Greek alphabet was in 2005 when the Atlantic had 27 recorded hurricanes.

2021 Atlantic hurricane names

Atlantic hurricane names are assigned in alphabetical order. None of the 21 names begin with Q, U, X, Y, or Z.

The names this season are:

  • Ana
  • Bill
  • Claudette
  • Danny
  • Elsa
  • Fred
  • Grace
  • Henri
  • Ida
  • Julian
  • Kate
  • Larry
  • Mindy
  • Nicholas
  • Odette
  • Peter
  • Rose
  • Sam
  • Teresa
  • Victor
  • Wanda

Source: National Hurricane Center

2021 Eastern North Pacific Hurricane names

Two centers assign names to tropical cyclones on behalf of the World Meteorological Organization in the Eastern North Pacific: the National Hurricane Center and the Central Pacific Hurricane Center, depending on the direction of the storm. There are more Spanish names on the Eastern Pacific hurricanes list because these storms mostly threaten western Mexico and Central America. The list has 24 names but none that begin with Q or U.

  • Andres
  • Blanca
  • Carlos
  • Dolores
  • Enrique
  • Felicia
  • Guillermo
  • Hilda
  • Ignacio
  • Jimena
  • Kevin
  • Linda
  • Marty
  • Nora
  • Olaf
  • Pamela
  • Rick
  • Sandra
  • Terry
  • Vivian
  • Waldo
  • Xina
  • York
  • Zelda

Source: National Hurricane Center

Retired hurricane names

Names are retired from the WMO lists when a storm causes significant fatalities and hurricane damage. It’s a small way to show respect to the folks who’ve lost a lot. So far, 89 names have been retired.

Since 2017, the names Harvey, Irma, Maria, Nate, Florence, and Michael have all been retired. Andrew and Katrina are also retired and won’t be used again. See the full list of retired names here.

In 2019, the name Dorian was retired, and in 2020, Laura, Eta, and Iota were retired.

When does a storm get a name?

When a tropical storm in the Atlantic Ocean reaches 39 miles per hour in wind speed, it gets a name, like Tropical Storm Isaias. Once it reaches sustained winds of 74 miles per hour, it’s upgraded to hurricane status with that same name: Hurricane Isaias.

Even if a tropical storm doesn’t become a hurricane, the name won’t be used again for six years. The next storm takes the next name on the list.

Hurricane naming history

Hurricanes are named so that they are easy to remember and communicate. But it wasn’t always that way.

Way back when tropical storms were named after Catholic saints being honored on the day of the storm. For example, in 1825, the hurricane that hit Puerto Rico was named after Saint Anne.

Storms from there were named pretty arbitrarily. An 1842 Atlantic storm was named Antje’s Hurricane after it ripped off the mast of a boat by that name.

Then early meteorologists in the US started naming storms by their latitude and longitude. Very scientific, but it doesn’t really roll off the tongue. Imagine trying to remember a string of numbers during the panic and confusion of an oncoming storm!

The US also experimented with using the phonetic alphabet for storms (Able, Baker, Charlie), but that led to overlap and confusion.

During World War II, inspired by George R. Stewart’s novel Storm, military meteorologists in the Pacific jokingly started naming storms after their wives and girlfriends. While not the most flattering thing in the world, it turned out that human names are much easier to remember.

And the naming convention stuck. Hurricane names keep everyone on the same page during hurricane season and increase public awareness, from meteorologists, researchers, and emergency responders to reporters and citizens.


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