Who names hurricanes? Why is this storm called Irma? All you need to know on how tropical storm names are chosen

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The eyes of the world have been on the US Gulf Coast and Caribbean over the past fortnight as hurricanes Harvey and Irma rip through the region.

Experts predicted this year’s Atlantic hurricane season – which runs from April to November – to be more active than usual and so far 10 named storms and four hurricanes have been recorded.

Hurricane Irma, the most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever recorded, is the latest to make landfall after reaching the Caribbean on Wednesday morning.

For anyone named Irma – or Katrina, Sandy or Matthew – the association with a devastating storm can be strange.

This is how hurricanes are named.

Who names hurricanes?

The Atlantic storm lists were originally created by the National Hurricane Centre in the 1950s and are now managed by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), which decides when names are struck off and replaced. 

Hurricane Irma, the most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever, is being followed by tropical storm Jose. (REUTERS)

There are different storm name lists for different parts of the world. These lists are managed by the WMO but separate regions’ meteorological organisations may compile the names.

For Atlantic storms, there are six lists which are rotated every six years. 

Why are hurricanes named?

Storms are given names for a number of reasons.

According to the WMO, names are easier to remember than numbers or technical terms which means they can be easily identified in warning messages and the media.

There is also less likelihood of making an error if you name storms, rather than using latitude-longitude identification methods. Naming helps ships, coastal bases and monitoring stations easily exchange information. 

Some experts suggest naming storms even helps the community prepare better and heightens interest in warnings.

How are hurricanes given names?

Names are chosen from an alphabetical list which is worked through chronologically each hurricane season.

For storms in the Atlantic and Eastern North Pacific regions, there are six lists which are rotated every six years.

Traditionally, just female names were used before alternate men’s names were introduced in 1979. 

Planes pass through the eye of Hurricane Irma

There are 21 names on the Atlantic season list – with the letters Q, U, X, Y and Z never used. 

The WMO makes it clear that hurricane or cyclones are not named after particular people, but are names selected which are familiar to people in each region.

In some areas – like the central north pacific – a new list is not started on at the beginning of each year. There are four lists and names are worked through sequentially until they reach the bottom.

When are names struck off the list?

Names are removed from the rotating lists, or “retired”, if a hurricane is so devastating it would be insensitive to use the name again.

In that case, an annual WMO committee meeting will decide to strike off the name and another name is selected.

Examples of names which will never be used again include Katrina (2005), Sandy (2012) and Matthew from last year.

Can I have a tropical storm named for me?

Not really; the WMO committee does not take applications for new hurricane or cyclone names.

The best chance is Australia where the Bureau of Meteorology – which submits new names to the WMO – receives many requests from the public to name storms after people.

The Bureau accepts requests received in writing and the name will be added to a supplementary list.

But it can take many decades for a suitable slot to be found, the Bureau warned.


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