How are Tropical Cyclones Named?


Hurricane season in the Atlantic Basin is a long one, officially beginning June first and lasting through November 30th… This does not mean there would never be a tropical system forming before June first or after November 30th, however, this is the most probably dates for them to develop in this part of the world.

With Tropical Storm Isaias, pronounced (ees-ah-EE-ahs), now behind us and many people asking where this name came from I thought we would look into a little history of the naming process of tropical cyclones and where these names come from, believe me, they don’t just pick from a hat!

Before the 1950’s, believe it or not, tropical systems were tracked by year and the order in which they developed. So for instance, this year Isaias would have been called tropical storm 9… Eventually it was realized that a short, easily remembered name would be much easier to communicate to the general public and create less confusion as the tropical season progressed, especially if there happens to be more than one system in the Atlantic or Pacific basin at the same time which does frequently happen.

It wasn’t until 1953 that the United States started to give female names for any storm that developed in the Atlantic. However, it wasn’t until 1978 that both male and female names were used for storms in the Northern Pacific Basin and was later adopted in 1979 for storms in the Atlantic Basin.

So where do these names originate from? NOAA’s National Hurricane Center actually does not control the naming process, there is a strict procedure that was established by the World Meteorological Organization. Each year there is a set of 21 names starting at “A” and going through “W”. The Atlantic Basin, the one which occasionally impacts us here in the Northeast, there is a list of male and female names which are rotated every 6 years. So, for example, we had Tropical Storm Gonzalo a few weeks back, that name would appear again in 2026.

However, there is an exception to this, occasionally tropical cyclone names will be “retired”, this only happens if a storm is so deadly or costly that using that name again in the future would be both inappropriate and cause fear in those who had lived through the devastation, one of these storms that have been retired from the naming list was Katrina, there will never be another storm named Katrina. Other hurricanes that were particularly strong include Patricia in 2015 with maximum sustained winds of 210 mph, Wilma from 2005, Gilbert in 1988, the Labor Day storm of 1935 (before storms were named) and Rita in 2005… You will never see another tropical cyclone be named by any of these names again.

I also mention that storm names will be “retired” if it causes extensive damage as well. The following list is a list of the top 5 costliest Tropical systems to ever make Landfall in the United States from 1900-2017. The five names you see below will never again be used in the naming of tropical cyclones. Notice, storms do NOT have to be very strong in terms of category (wind speeds) to produce a significant amount of damage. The category of a storm only takes into account for the maximum sustained winds within a storm and not the amount of rainfall or storm surge they produce.

What happens if we run out of names in a particularly active tropical season?
Sometimes we see a particularly active tropical season in the Atlantic and before the official season is over with we will run out of names, meaning we have reached the end of the 21 names on the list, we would then begin seeing storms named from the Greek Alphabet.

2020 has been a particularly active season for the Atlantic basin so far, of course not all of the named storms have made landfall, however, we are way ahead of schedule from where we would typically see our “I” named storm. From climatology from 1966-2009 typically the ninth named system would not form until October 4th, Isaias first formed and was named on July 28th and finally lost it’s tropical characteristics the night of August 4th. With several months left in the official Hurricane season it would be probable that we could make it to the end of the name list. Now we wait and see what the rest of the season has in store.

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