What’s in a name? How and why hurricane names are retired

The next time hurricane season rolls around, you won’t see any storms named Irma or Harvey. You can also count out Katrina, Sandy and Andrew.

The members of the World Meteorological Organzation’s (WMO) Regional Association IV Hurricane Committee for North America, Central America and the Caribbean will make sure of that.

This 27-member WMO committee has been responsible for choosing which names are on the cycling list used to identify the Atlantic Ocean’s most powerful storms since the 1950s, according to Clare Nullis, the WMO’s media officer. When a hurricane is particularly devastating, it decides if the name associated with the storm should be removed from the list.

Hurricane Irma, pictured above, is one of the names likely to be retired by the WMO at the conclusion of this year’s hurricane season. Photo courtesy Cayobo via Flickr.

The process begins when any of the countries covered by Regional Association IV contacts the WMO requesting for a name to be taken out of circulation. Nullis said as far as she knows, no requests have ever been denied, regardless of how much damage the storm in question caused.

“There is no minimum threshold either in terms of damage or casualties,” Nullis said via an e-mail.

The committee meets for a four to five day period after the hurricane season to discuss what it has learned from the past season, and part of that is updating the cycling list of names.

According to Taoyong Peng, chief of the Tropical Cyclone Programme (TCP), about half a day of that meeting is spent on the “operational plan” part of which includes any changes to the name list which need to be made.
Peng said the discussion of retiring names typically takes even less time than that.

“It normally takes around half an hour, as good communication has already been done prior to the meeting,” Peng said via an e-mail.

Once the name is retired, it falls on the WMO committee to come up with a new one. It may seem simple, but according to Peng, it’s not as easy as one may expect.

First of all, the new name must start with the same letter, and it must be of the same gender. The name selection

The above is a table inclusive of every hurricane name to be retired, courtesy Clare Nullis.

carries cultural implications as well.

“When selecting a new name, consideration must be given to the pronunciation of the name in all languages of the Committee, the complexity of the name for communication purposes and the length of the name for modern communication channels,” Peng said via an e-mail.

So which names will the committee be considering throwing out when it meets to discuss the operational plan after this year’s hurricane season?

Nullis said that discussion hardly even needs to be had.

“It is safe to say it is a foregone conclusion that Harvey, Irma and Maria will be retired,” she said via an e-mail.

And while it may not be the most important or functional item on the docket when Regional Association IV meets at the end of this hurricane season, Peng and the rest of the committee will, like they do every year, still need to take into consideration exactly what is in a name.

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