The heat wave that hit Seville, Spain, at the end of July was notable not only for its temperatures, which exceeded one hundred and ten degrees, but also for the fact that it was the first heat wave to bring a name: Zoe. In June, the city launched a system similar to that used for hurricanes. Each heat wave will be given an intensity ranking and a name, in reverse alphabetical order. The next ones will be Yago, Xenia, Wenceslao and Vega.
The Atlantic Ocean hurricane naming system has been around since 1953. The names are listed alphabetically, omitting the “difficult” letters “Q”, “U”, “X”, “Y”, and “Z”. For the first twenty-five years or so, hurricanes and tropical storms bore exclusively female names. In part, this continued the tradition of sailors naming ships after the gender most often absent on them. In 1979, the names began to alternate between masculine and feminine. In the hurricane season of 2022, we’ll meet Alex, then Bonnie, and eventually Gaston and Hermione, and, if we hit a twenty-first storm, it’ll go by the comforting old-school name of Walter.
Due to rising ocean temperatures, hurricanes are expected to become more intense on average. In 2006, the National Hurricane Center added four specialists, expanding its forecasting team from six to ten. Daniel Brown, senior hurricane specialist at the Miami-based NHC, has worked on hurricane forecasts since 1993, the year after Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida; it was his first job outside of school. “From 2017 to 2021 we had more Category 4 and 5 hurricanes making landfall in the United States than from 1963 to 2016,” he told me. In 2005 and 2020, the number of hurricanes and tropical storms exceeded the predicted list by twenty-one names. Numbers 22 and following were named after the letters of the Greek alphabet. The 2020 season ended with Hurricane Iota.
For Atlantic Ocean hurricanes, there are only six lists of names. Last year’s list was used six years ago, and six years before, in 1979. But once in a while, after a particularly deadly or costly storm, a name is taken down. Brian McNoldy, a meteorologist at the University of Miami, explained that there is “no precise science” to make a storm a distinguished name. “It’s not like there’s a certain number of deaths, for example, after which a name is removed,” he said. “It’s more of a subjective sense of ‘It was a really bad storm.’ At the annual meeting of the Regional Hurricane Committee of Association IV of the World Meteorological Organization, which is part of the United Nations, representatives of any of the affected countries may propose to retire a storm name. The discussion then ensues; finally a vote; the name is then, or is not, withdrawn. In 2021, Ida retired, replaced by Imani, chosen in a similar process. (Names that are not chosen are not shared with outsiders, as meteorologists believe there is already sufficient scrutiny of hurricane names.)
The use of the Greek alphabet was itself retired after 2020. It made no sense to “retire” a letter. But, just like you wouldn’t want to have another memorable hurricane named Katrina, you wouldn’t want to have to specify which Iota you were referring to, if both were really violent.
Brown explained that the NHC tries to get people to understand that some of the most intense storms are experiencing what is called rapid strengthening: “Among recent storms in the United States with winds greater than one hundred and fifty miles per hour at the landing, all but one of them were tropical storms” – not strong enough to be classified as hurricanes – “less than three days ago”. This rapid change in the “personality” of the storm makes preparing people a challenge.
But names, too, can affect how people prepare for storms. A 2014 study analyzed sixty-two years of hurricane-related mortality records. The ladies hurricanes caused far more deaths than the gentlemen. The study also included experiments in which participants had to rank the risk of a hurricane after seeing a map and reading a description of the uncertainty about the future intensity of the hurricane. Hurricane Alexander was considered more threatening than Hurricane Alexandra, Victor more than Victoria, Christopher more than Christina. Unnamed hurricanes were rated about as dangerous as female hurricanes. The study concluded with the suggestion that “a storm named after a flower may seem less threatening than a storm named after a raptor.” The study has received many criticisms: for example, since only female names were used before 1979 – and the prediction and preparation were almost certainly worse in the past – the results of the archival analysis might not be reliable.
There are other curiosities in the annals of hurricane naming. McNoldy, for fun, took a closer look and found that those starting with the letter “I” were the most likely to have been retired. We removed Ida, Igor, Ike, Inez, Ingrid, Ione, Irene, Iris, Irma, Isabel, Isidore and Ivan. “There’s really no good reason why that should be the case,” he said, and pointed out that nearby letters didn’t have as many retirees. “’C’ and ‘F’ have the most after ‘I’. Then ‘D’ and ‘A’. It’s quite scattered. I asked him if he had a theory. He paused, then replied like a scientist, “Maybe one aspect is that we only have ninety-four names retired. It’s only been about seventy years. If we had three hundred and fifty years of history. . . at the moment there is too much noise in the system.
Other parts of the world have their own naming systems and use names familiar to people in that part of the world. In the central North Pacific, four lists are alternated, with names such as Aka, Neki and Unala. In the Northwest Pacific and the South China Sea, each affected country in the region must give a name. Micronesia added Mitag to the list; the Philippines added Ragasa.
The etymology of “hurricane” itself is considerably more august than the neighboring names of individual hurricanes. In the tradition of the Tainos, originating from the Caribbean, the earth, the sky and the stars were created by the goddess Atabei. She had two sons. We created the sun, the moon, the plants and the animals. The other, jealous of his brother’s creations, began to destroy them with a powerful wind. The jealous brother adopted the name Jurakan. (The story resembles in some ways that of Cain and Abel.) Representations of the god show a face with two arms emerging from the head in different curves, forming an “S”, suggesting that the Tainos may have known already what Western civilization assumed in the mid-nineteenth century – that hurricane winds turn.
“Kamikaze” is a great word – it means divine wind. In medieval Japan, the term “kamikaze” was used to refer to typhoons. (Hurricanes and typhoons are equivalent in all respects except geography: hurricanes are creatures of warm waters east of the International Date Line, and typhoons are the same weather phenomenon in warm waters at west of it. Because the waters of the northeast Pacific are so vast, typhoons tend to be stronger.) The idea that a typhoon was a divine wind emerged in the 13th century, after two oddly timed storms. In October 1274, Kublai Khan, accompanied by some forty thousand sailors, prepared to invade Japan, which was outnumbered and outgunned; then a typhoon struck, drowning a third of the invaders. Seven years later Khan returned, this time with 140,000 men; again, a typhoon decided the outcome in favor of the Japanese. The Khan escaped unharmed, but the remains of the ships that carried tens of thousands of men still lie on the seabed today. What the Khan called this tropical cyclone is, as far as I know, lost to us. ♦