At 11 a.m. on Friday, September 18, Tropical Depression 21 became Tropical Storm Wilfred. When another tropical storm formed near Portugal later that same day, it was labeled with the first letter of the Greek alphabet: Alpha. When yet another tempest formed in the afternoon in the western Gulf of Mexico, it was named Beta.
The Atlantic hurricane season lasts from June to November, and already the 2020 season has seen the most storms in the shortest amount of time in recorded history. Only twice has the National Hurricane Center (NHC) ever run out of human names for tropical storms and had to turn to its backup: the Greek alphabet. Once was in 2005, when 27 names were given, the last one being Zeta, six letters in.
The tropical cyclone—a generic name for rotating storms that spin up in all of the world’s oceans—graduates from tropical depression to tropical storm when maximum sustained winds reach 39 miles per hour. At that point a name is assigned.
No ceremonies or rites accompany these moments at NHC headquarters in Miami, Florida, where storms in the North Atlantic are monitored. The name-giving is simply procedural, part of a labeling system that meteorologists have been using for 67 years. “It’s just the natural next step,” says Edward Rappaport, Deputy Director of the NHC who has worked at the organization for over 40 years. “There’s no shouting from the rooftops.”
But assigning names to potentially lethal storms is important, for several reasons. Calling a storm Eduard or Otto can make it feel all the more immediate, which could make a difference in the way people prepare for a potential disaster.
“In general, humans care about other humans, so when we humanize something inanimate, it makes us care about the thing more,” says Adam Waytz, a professor at Northwestern University and author of the book The Power of Human. “Naming things can make them more memorable, easier to recall, and certainly it makes things feel more fluent or easy to process. Given that work shows that easily processed information takes on outsized importance in our minds, it is likely that naming things can give them importance as well.”
What’s in a name?
At the NHC, in rooms filled with screens, scientists study data from satellites, radars, and reconnaissance aircrafts to determine, among other things, the maximum sustained wind speeds of a tropical cyclone. Speeds are calculated by taking the average of the fastest winds in the storm—33 feet above the water, in gusts closest to the eye—over one minute.
As Tropical Storm Beta nears the coast of Texas, threatening strong winds and flooding, its identity is firmly set; “Beta” will stick if the storm grows in size and intensity, turning into a hurricane when maximum sustained winds exceed 74 miles per hour. The name will also stick if the storm dissipates and dies in a couple of hours. Once bestowed, the name won’t be taken away.
There is a scientific process for choosing tropical storm names, just as there is for determining when to name one. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) manages 10 groups of names for cyclones around the world that reach a minimum size, each group comprising a handful of lists, most alphabetically ordered and alternated by gender.
The groups of names are created by regional meteorological organizations; they’re short and easy to pronounce, according to the WMO. The Central North Pacific names are primarily Hawaiian, and are organized into four lists, each with 12 names. For example, List 1 starts: Akoni, Ema, Hone, Ion. List 2 begins: Aka, Ekeke, Hene, Iolana.
The Northern Indian Ocean names are primarily South Asian. The North Atlantic group, which is the area the NHC observes, has six lists of 21 names, derived from English, Spanish, or French, which are used in consecutive years and repeated every six years. So Barry—the name of a hurricane in 2019—will be used again to name the second North Atlantic tropical storm of 2025. No matter how far through the Greek alphabet we get this year, next year the NHC will start with the next list of human names.
There is no real choice for meteorologists when it comes to naming tropical storms—they simply have a catalog of recycled names that they move through as new storms pop up each year: Arthur, Bertha, Cristobal, Dolly, Edouard, and so on.
Although the modern process of naming tropical storms is scientific, the origin of the practice was disorganized and emotional. The first recorded storm names were assigned after incredibly devastating hurricanes, like Hurricane Santa Ana, which struck Puerto Rico on Saint Anne’s Day, July 26, 1825, killing hundreds. Hurricane San Felipe landed in Puerto Rico on Saint Philip’s Day, September 13, 1876; more than 20 people perished.
This trend of commemoration continued through the years, and then took a turn during World War II when U.S. Navy and Air Force meteorologists started naming tropical cyclones after girlfriends, wives, or love interests. Around the same time, though, as atmospheric measuring tools advanced and more cyclones could be identified, meteorologists discovered that they needed to name the storms sooner rather than later, to keep them straight. In 1945, the National Weather Bureau (now the National Weather Service) decided to follow the military’s example, naming Atlantic tropical storms after women, but for the more utilitarian reason of clear communication and documentation. That continued until 1979 when, under pressure from prominent feminists, they switched to both male and female names.
Today there is no personal connection between meteorologists and hurricane names, Rappaport says. The nomenclature exists for two main reasons, both practical: record keeping and public awareness. “Giving it a name does call a greater attention to the system than it would have had otherwise,” he says.
Retiring a name
In the North Atlantic, as well as in the majority of other regions, the only time the alternating lists of names are revised is when a particularly destructive storm makes landfall and leaves a lasting mark on the public consciousness. Examples include Katrina in 2005 and Sandy in 2012. Once a storm reaches a certain level of infamy, the WMO retires the name. Then, at the annual meeting of the Tropical Cyclone Committees, another name—same gender, same initial letter, same country of origin—is decided on to replace it. Katia replaced Katrina. Sara replaced Sandy.
Even in meetings to decide new names, meteorologists maintain a degree of scientific detachment from what they’re doing. Rappaport says that one of the WMO’s rules for replacing retired names is that they don’t use the names of close family members or friends, or even staff members, to avoid a kind of inappropriate hurricane-scientist relationship. “It’s just taken from a generic list of names of a particular letter,” he says.
Back in 2005, five names were retired—including Katrina—which was a record. And then this year, as Tropical Storm Alpha’s maximum average winds tipped over 39 miles per hour, shortly followed by Beta, marking the 23rd storm of the 2020 season, we’ve reached a point where new hurricanes will no longer remind us of a person or a face, but of a mathematical equation.