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Blog Category: Tropical cyclones

NHC'S Bill Read: A Hurricane by Any Other Name. . . .

Satellite photo of Hurricane Dora, July21,  2011

Guest blog by Bill Read, Director of NOAA's National Hurricane Center

One of the customs of my job as Director that has been most interesting is the practice of naming of tropical cyclones. For several hundred years, many hurricanes in the West Indies were named after the particular saint's day on which the hurricane occurred. Ivan R. Tannehill describes in his book, Hurricanes the major tropical storms of recorded history and mentions many hurricanes named after saints. For example, there was Hurricane "Santa Ana," which struck Puerto Rico with exceptional violence on July 26, 1825, and "San Felipe" (the first) and "San Felipe" (the second) which hit Puerto Rico on September 13 in both 1876 and 1928.

Prior to the current naming scheme, storms were identified mostly by the current position (latitude and longitude). Not all of us are geographically oriented, and experience shows that the use of short, distinctive given names in written as well as spoken communications is quicker and less subject to error than the older more cumbersome latitude-longitude identification methods. In the pre-Internet, 24/7 news cycle era, these advantages were important in exchanging detailed storm information between hundreds of widely scattered stations, coastal bases and ships at sea.

While not officially adopted until after 1950, the use of common people names dates back to the last century. An early example of the use of a woman's name for a storm (a winter storm called “Maria”) was in the novel Storm, by George R. Stewart, published by Random House in 1941, also filmed by Walt Disney. During World War II, this informal naming practice became widespread in weather map discussions among forecasters, especially Air Force and Navy meteorologists who plotted the movements of storms over the wide expanses of the Pacific Ocean.