Why Hurricane Patricia's Name May Be Retired

Meteorologists sometimes decide to stop recycling a storm name. Here's how.

Updated Saturday at 8:15 a.m. ET.

If Patricia, the strongest hurricane on record in the Western Hemisphere, is as destructive as some were predicting, there may never be another storm by that name.

The World Meteorological Organization—which assigns names to storms to help prevent confusion from warnings for simultaneous weather events—reuses names from previous years on a rotating basis, but drops the names of storms that resulted in large numbers of fatalities or severe damage.

Hurricane Patricia struck Mexico's west coast on Friday night as a Category 5 storm but appeared to cause less damage than expected and was downgraded to Category 5 on Saturday morning.

(See 10 Years of Hurricanes in One Graphic.)

The name Sandy was retired after the thousand-mile-wide storm of that name raked the Caribbean and the Atlantic coast of the United States in 2012, causing at least $50 billion in damage and 147 deaths.

Sandy is one of just 78 Atlantic hurricane names and 55 Pacific hurricane names that have been retired since 1953. In 2005, Katrina, Rita, Dennis, Stan, and Wilma were removed from the Atlantic hurricane list, the most cut in a single year. (Read "Hurricane Katrina Turned My Family's Odds and Ends Into Heirlooms.")

The WMO also retires storm names that have become controversial—think Adolph, or Isis.

It would be up to Mexico to request that Patricia be retired during a WMO meeting next April.

Gender Bias

Today, storm names are drawn from numerous languages and cultures. Starting in the 1970s, male names were added to female-only lists. Ascribing gender may have had a surprising effect: A 2014 study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-­Champaign found that people take storms with feminine names less seriously, which may put lives at risk.

Critics assailed that finding, but study co-author Sharon Shavitt says her research team stands by it and continues to see it borne out.

Hurricane historian Liz Skilton questions the whole practice of labeling hurricanes as male or female. “We’re putting sex-specific names on a thing with no biology,” she says. “Can we ever move away from it?” One region already has: Most western Pacific typhoons are now named for plants or animals. 

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