August 16, 2019
The Turbulent History of Hurricane Terminology
Posted by: Emily Engle
Header photo: Overview of Hurricane Michael (2018), Retrieved from: kpbs.org
The term “Hurricane” is derived from the Taino Native American people’s word “Huricán”, a term utilized to represent their culture’s god of evil. This Caribbean groups’ religious beliefs can be traced to originate in the Mayan god “Huracán”, the god of wind, storms, and fire. Spanish explorers traveling though the Caribbean retained the term and transformed it into “huracán”, the Spanish term for hurricane to this day. Thus, buried within our present terminology lies historical fear associated with these weather events. Given these storms’ vibrant etymology, one may wonder how individual cyclones are given names today. Here on Little Saint Simons, tropical storms have molded the island’s landscape and ecology; These longstanding effects are visible in the windswept winding cedar trees, twisted branches of the live oaks, and re-growing coastal dune plants. Historically, the Island has experienced effects from the Sea Islands Hurricane of 1893, the Cedar Keys hurricane of 1896, the Georgia Hurricane of 1898, Hurricane David in 1979, Matthew in 2016, Irma in 2017, and hurricane Michael this past year. These storms share in their power and impacts; however, they differ in their nomenclature: at what point did identifying terminologies shift from approximate locations to personified names? Further, who decides what to name a storm, and how did this labeling process come to be universal for our Atlantic cyclones? The art of hurricane terminology is complex in nature, took decades to gain universal acceptance, and remains of upmost relevance to Atlantic Barrier residents and visitors to this day.
Clement Wragge, meteorologist credited with giving tropical storms personified names. Retrieved from: media.bom.gov.au
The terms hurricane, typhoon, and cyclone are used throughout the world to identify the same storms which haunt seaside cities. They differ only in their location of origin and formation: Hurricanes’ in the North Atlantic and Northeast Pacific; Cyclones over the South Pacific and Indian Ocean; and Typhoons over the Northwest Pacific. For centuries tropical cyclones were named after places, saints, or things which they hit; hence the name of “The Georgia Hurricane” in 1898. Our present-day naming system was coined in 1887 by Queensland Government Meteorologist Clement Wragge. Wragge saw a need for clear storm identifications as they needed to be in a form easily retainable and recognizable for the public. As a result, he began using more common naming terms for weather systems in Australia, New Zealand, and Antarctica. His nomenclature began labeling cyclones with letters of the Greek alphabet as well as female names from Greek and Roman mythology. Following the Australian Government’s failure to create a federal weather bureau and appoint Wragge as director, he began naming storms after political figures. Thus, out of bitter pettiness, our modern labeling system was born. In 1907, following Wragge’s retirement, this terminology was lost until World War II when it was revived for use in the Western Pacific.
During the Second World War US Army Air Corps and US Navy meteorologists stationed at the Saipan weather center began to informally name typhoons after their wives and girlfriends. This naming system reduced confusion in map discussions and in 1945, resulted in the US Armed Services publicly adopting a list of female names for typhoons in the Pacific. Contrarily, the US Weather Bureau opposed the use of names to identify storms. Rather, they opted to use the Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet to label tropical storms in the North Atlantic out of fear casual names may compromise their image as a serious enterprise. However, this system resulted in mass confusion as several hurricanes (Baker, Dog, and Easy) simultaneously struck the coast in 1950. This persuaded the Bureau to eventually adopt a list of female names for labeling in 1953. This terminology faced minor backlash, as some opposed the use of solely women’s names. However, the public overwhelmingly supported this clear new nomenclature usage to convey storm threats rather than the seemingly random terms of the Phonetic Alphabet.
In 1977 the World Meteorological Association formed a hurricane committee which took responsibility of the Atlantic hurricane naming lists. At the request of Secretary of Commerce Juanita Kreps in 1978, the committee began including both men and women’s names in the lists utilized to label of Atlantic storms. Additionally, these name selections included several Spanish and French names as to reflect the diverse cultures and languages of the Atlantic.
Today the World Meteorological Organization uses male and female names for each letter of the alphabet (excluding Q and U) for each hurricane season. These lists of names are rotated every six years. If more storms occur than the 24 allotted labels, the organization will utilize Greek letters to identify subsequent storms. Additionally, names will be retired if their associated damage and casualties are considered to surpass a threshold of significance. In the context of global climate change, weather events will inevitably become more common, if not more severe. Fortunately, Little Saint Simons has not been directly hit by a storm since 1898 and the island has protocols in place to prepare for less favorable weather. Despite a complex history behind hurricane names it is imperative that all of us along the Atlantic seaboard remain aware as we make our way through this summer and fall season.