In the best case scenario, a storm is never named. It putters out well before it reaches land, or if on land, it's just a lot of rain, a regular annoying damp day but nothing dangerous, definitely not a hurricane, and no one is any the wiser. That storm hasn't hurt even a flea, that we know of. Other times storms start small and rise to an occasion of terror, becoming quite powerful and doing dreadful things. Sometimes they do a little damage, and sometimes it's so much it takes many years of recovery. There's one named Isaac heading up the coast right now, causing power outages, flooding, and all sorts of trouble. But along with the existence of tropical storms and hurricanes as weather patterns ranging from highly destructive to a temporary, relatively painless blip on the radar, there also exists this strange "humanizing" thing we do with major storms: We insist on naming them. How does that work, exactly?
The Wall Street Journal has a great interactive graphic that shows the name of every Atlantic storm big enough to name from 1950 until now, and includes the names of future hurricanes as well. They can do this because storm names nowadays are no big surprise. Back in the old days things were a bit different. As Jeremy Singer-Vine writes, "The U.S. Weather Bureau began naming Atlantic storms from an official list in 1950, initially using the military radio alphabet."
In 1950, named storms only reached L, and the name of that storm was Love. For those of us who don't know the military alphabet offhand, the A-to-Z list of storm names would have gone like this: Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog, Easy, Fox, George, How, Item, Jig, King, Love, Mike, Nancy, Oboe, Peter, Queen, Roger, Sugar, Tare, Uncle, Victor, William, X-Ray, Yoke, Zebra. Before we could ever get to Hurricane Named Uncle, in 1953 the Bureau, renamed the National Weather Service, changed the prospective major storm names to ladies' names. A lot of women were not so O.K. with this—"The controversial choice met resistance from women's groups, who saw the practice as unfair, and from Carols and Hazels who resented sharing their names with natural disasters," explains Vine-Singer.
Guy names were finally added to the mix in 1979, and, though the naming is now managed by the World Meteorological Organization, that's still pretty much how it works. Women's and men's names alternate from storm to storm (following Isaac, the 2012 naming will go like this: Joyce, Kirk, Leslie, Michael, Nadine, Oscar, Patty, Rafael, Sandy, Tony, Valerie, William).
There are contingency plans in case of emergency. Per the National Hurricane Center, "The only time that there is a change in the list is if a storm is so deadly or costly that the future use of its name on a different storm would be inappropriate for reasons of sensitivity. If that occurs, then at an annual meeting by the WMO committee (called primarily to discuss many other issues) the offending name is stricken from the list and another name is selected to replace it." Also, they explain that the naming is not, actually, for humanizing purposes but because "experience shows that the use of short, distinctive names in written as well as spoken communications is quicker and less subject to error than the older, more cumbersome latitude-longitude identification methods," particularly in sea communications—less confusion all around in a time of confusion. "In the past, confusion and false rumors have arisen when storm advisories broadcast from radio stations were mistaken for warnings concerning an entirely different storm located hundreds of miles away," the specialists explain. Calling a storm Martin or Lola solves that problem nicely.
Worrisomely, the Journal infographic shows an overall increase in the number of yearly Atlantic storms over the last 60 years. What if we get all the way through the name list? Singer-Vine writes, "If the list of names for a season is exhausted, as happened for the first time in 2005, the rest of that year's storms take names from the Greek alphabet." You know, Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, and so on. In 2005, the biggest storm year recorded, we got all the way to Zeta.
At one more imaginative point in the storm-naming saga, Singer-Vine writes, "Critics floated alternative naming schemes that included mythological characters, animals and adjectives like Annoying and Blustery." Wait! Could you actually do this? What if storm names were not people names but really, storm names, or, at least, words that might describe storms? With the help of Merriam-Webster, it turns out, there are indeed a lot of ways to imply storm, literally or figuratively, including Alarums and Excursions (think twins!), meaning "clamor, excitement, and feverish or disordered activity"; Ballyhoo, "a noisy attention-getting demonstration or talk"; Cataclysm; Deluge; Foofaraw; Helter-skelter; Kerfuffle; and so on ... all the way to Squall; Tempest; Uproar; Volley; Whirl; and Zephyr. So, yes, one could probably name storms more "stormy" names, if such was the desire.
But for now they're sticking to the list of established people names. Are you a Gert? Nestor? Melissa? Hermine? Check the list here, there may be a storm with your name on it. It could be worse, though. Please, future World Meteorological leaders, no naming storms after characters from the Twilight saga.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.