Tropical super cyclone moving towards land at night © Shutterstock

Tropical cyclone naming: making warnings easier to remember
Tropical cyclones are one of the biggest threats to life and property, even in their formative stages
1 Feb 2024

Tropical cyclones can last for a week or more, and more than one can occur at the same time. Cyclones generate numerous destructive life-threatening hazards: extreme winds, heavy rainfall, storm surge and flooding. Every year, millions of people are directly affected by tropical cyclones and billions of dollars are accumulated in related economic losses. Understanding and acting on tropical cyclone warnings is often a matter of life and death. The naming of tropical cyclones has proven the fastest way to communicate such warnings. Naming heightens public interest in warnings and makes it easier for the media to report on tropical cyclones, thus increasing community preparedness for the pending threat.

Mankind has named storms for a long time, but in a very arbitrary manner and after-the-fact. An Atlantic storm that ripped off the mast of a boat named Antje would become known as Antje’s hurricane. As weather forecasting developed as a science, storms were identified by their latitude-longitude, but the use of short, distinctive names – in written as well as spoken communications – proved quicker and less subject to error. Those were important considerations when exchanging detailed storm information with hundreds of widely scattered weather stations, coastal bases, and ships at sea.

The practice of using female names for storms started in the middle of the 20th century. Then, in the pursuit of a more organized and efficient system, meteorologists decided to identify storms using names from an alphabetical list: the first storm in the year would be given a name that begins with A, like Anne, the second B, like Betty, etc. As of 1953, the National Hurricane Center, a division of the US National Atmospheric and Oceanographic Association (NOAA), provided the name lists for Atlantic tropical storms. In 1979, male names were introduced, alternating with the female names.

World Meteorological Organization (WMO) rules and regional conventions now govern the selection of lists of such names for the years ahead by the National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHSs) of WMO members. In the Atlantic and in the Southern Hemisphere – Southwest Indian Ocean and the South Pacific – the NMHSs list names in alphabetical order, alternating between male and female names. In the Northern Indian Ocean and North-Western Pacific Ocean, each NMHS – in alphabetical order of the countries of the region – in turn provides a gender-neutral (non-alphabetical order) name for the lists. The lists are approved by the respective WMO regional tropical cyclone bodies at annual/biannual sessions.

The North Atlantic and Eastern North Pacific have six name lists that are used in rotation; thus, the 2024 list will be used again in 2030. However, other regions maintain 2, 3, 5 and up to 13 name lists. Names are removed when a storm so-named is so deadly or costly that the future use would be insensitive to those impacted. When that occurs, the name is stricken from the list and another name is selected to replace it. Infamous storm names that have been stricken from lists include Mangkhut (Philippines, 2018), Irma and Maria (Caribbean, 2017), Haiyan (Philippines, 2013), Sandy (USA, 2012), Katrina (USA, 2005), Mitch (Honduras, 1998) and Tracy (Darwin, 1974).

When selecting a new name, consideration is given to certain factors:

• Its pronunciation in the different languages in use in the region;

• The complexity of the name for communication purposes (for example, whether it uses accents);

• The length of the name for modern communication channels (such as social media);

• Negative implication of the name in different languages;

• To avoid using similar names to those in other tropical cyclone basins.

The work of the WMO regional tropical cyclone bodies emphasizes the need for improved impact-based multi-hazard early warning systems, mitigation measures, and working with those at risk to prepare them to take quick, effective action to save lives.

* Anne-Claire Fontan is the Scientific Officer of the Tropical Cyclone Programme and Sylvie Castonguay is an Editor, WMO.
Read more articles about GLOBAL AFFAIRS