The practice of naming storms began in the Caribbean, where storms were named after the saint of the day on which the storm occurred. This system persisted until the Second World War, when weather forecasters began using female names to identify cyclones and storms. In 1979, the practice was updated to include male names as well, in order to be more inclusive. If a storm is particularly severe or deadly, the name is retired from the list of potential storm names.
Before we get to the naming process of cyclones, typhoons and hurricanes, it’s very important to understand the differences between these storms, or rather, their similarities.
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What are cyclones, typhoons or hurricanes?
This may sound unbelievable to some of you, but cyclones, typhoons and hurricanes…. are all one and the same thing!
These names do, in fact, refer to the same weather phenomenon – torrential rain and maximum sustained wind speeds (near the center) exceeding 119 kilometers per hour. Despite being the same phenomenon, they have different names because they correspond to specific oceanic locations on Earth.
If such a storm occurs in the western North Pacific Ocean, it’s called a typhoon. If it occurs in the western North Atlantic, central and eastern North Pacific, Gulf of Mexico or Caribbean, it’s referred to as a hurricane. Similarly, in the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal, it’s called a cyclone.
Cyclones have two more subtypes: in the southwestern Indian Ocean, they are ‘tropical cyclones’, whereas in southeastern Indian Ocean and the South Pacific, they are called “severe tropical cyclones”.
The thing about tropical cyclones is that they can last for a week (or longer). As such, it’s quite common that at a given time, there can be two cyclones in the same region. Yet, how would you tell one cyclone from another? One way to do that would be to name both cyclones according to their geographical location on Earth, i.e., using latitude and longitude.
If this is how cyclones were named, then you would hear weather correspondents reporting something like this – “the cyclone at [insert first cyclone location coordinates here] is now heading towards another cyclone at [insert second cyclone location coordinates here]. Ships and small vessels are advised to stay secured in harbor until further notice.”
As you can imagine, that form of weather reporting would not be very, well… let’s just say ‘user-friendly’. This is why we needed a better, more convenient method of identifying cyclones and telling them apart from others.
And when it comes to identifying something, what’s better than simply giving it a good old human name?
How do they name cyclones, hurricanes or typhoons?
To the uninitiated, it may seem that the weather department simply comes up with a name for each cyclone and passes it on to news agencies all over the world, which then report about that cyclone using the given name. However, it doesn’t actually happen that way.
Several countries in the “geographical vicinity” of the cyclone in question conduct deliberations and compile their own sets of names, which are then sent to the World Meteorological Organization (or WMO – a specialized agency of the United Nations that functions as the UN’s voice on the state and behavior of Earth’s atmosphere, climate conditions, land, oceans and other such features). For every storm that occurs in a given region, it is bestowed with one of the names from the list.
The names in the list are arranged alphabetically, so a storm whose name begins with A (say, Anne) would be the one of the first storms to occur in that year. Similarly, a storm called Zenna would be one of the last storms of the year in that particular region.
Naming Storms in the Past
The aforementioned process of naming storms is quite slick, but the same process was not that clever right from the start.
Initially, people living in the Caribbean Islands would name the storms after the saint of the day – from the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar – on which the storm occurred.
This system persisted until the Second World War, when weather forecasters began using female names to identify cyclones and storms. This practice (of using only female names) wasn’t taken too kindly by women’s liberation bodies in the 1960s and 70s.
As a result, the list of possible names for cyclones was updated in the year 1979 to include male names as well.
The list of potential names for storms now contains both male and female names, which alternate with every named storm. There are several such lists of names that are used in rotation year after year. In other words, if a list is used this year (i.e., names have been taken from that list this year), that list would no longer be relied on again until all the other lists have been used.
There’s another notable thing about the process of naming storms.
What if a storm is too severe or deadly?
When a storm begins to develop, it’s given a name by weather forecasters, making it easy for the media to report on it, and by extension, increasing community preparedness. Let’s say that the storm is named ‘Lila’.
If Lila turns out to be a particularly severe and deadly storm, the name “Lila” would be retired from the list of potential storm names for reasons of sensitivity. In that way, particularly nasty storm names are not used again.
There have been several such cases in the past when particularly dangerous storm names have been struck from the master list. Tracy (Darwin, 1974), Mitch (Honduras, 1998), Katrina (USA, 2005), Sandy (USA, 2012) and Haiyan (Philippines, 2013) are some infamous examples of retired storm names, as these storms resulted in a significant amount of death and destruction.