By: Andrea Moyer
Hurricane season is upon us! We are at the peak of this delightful time of the year when late summer plans may well go awry due to these awesome funnels of destruction. They’re etched on our memories and we attach the different types and levels of devastation, as unique as the storms themselves, to the hurricanes that produced them.
Notorious hurricanes protrude in our minds as we contemplate the approaching zenith of the season. From the flooding that came in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to the massive power outages of Sandy’s costly devastation, the memories are vivid. I myself recall a tree in our backyard that was knocked over by Isabel in 2003. While we might not remember when or where these storms took place, we certainly won’t forget the names. But have you ever wondered how and why they started acquiring their unique names?
Let’s take a look:
Native Americans called these storms “hurakons” after “a great spirit who commanded the east wind”. Natives of the West Indies gave them name “huracan” after an evil spirit. Naming hurricanes has been popular for centuries, although the current system did not emerge until 1953. Prior to that, many hurricanes in the West Indies were named after the saint on whose particular day the hurricane occurred, most notably Hurricanes Santa Ana and San Felipe which struck Puerto Rico during the nineteenth century.
During the early half of the twentieth century hurricanes were categorizes only by numbers reflecting the latitude and longitude at which the storm first appeared. Not surprisingly, this made it difficult to distinguish and track storms, particularly if they occurred at the same time and in the same area. To eliminate this confusion, in 1953 the US starts tagging storms in the North Pacific with female names, and by 1978 both male and female names are used for storms in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, with the exception of those names beginning with the letters Q, U, X, Y and Z.
So, when does a storm receive a name? To qualify for its own name, a tropical storm must reach wind speeds of 39 mph and develop the familiar circular pattern. And of course, a tropical storm becomes a hurricane when its wind speeds reach 74 mph.
You might be wondering, as I’ve often done, whether there’s any method to naming hurricanes or if the folks in charge of hurricane-naming simply pull names from a hat. Actually, there is a strict procedure in place that is used by the World Meteorological Organization in naming hurricanes. This was in place by 1979 and names are selected well in advance for each upcoming hurricane season. After six years the names are used all over again, except in cases of particularly devastating storms. You won’t see another Hurricane Andrew or Katrina or Sandy. Out of respect for the victims of those hurricanes, the names have been permanently retired.
What happens if there are more than 21 named storms in one season? Typically, there are never more than 21 named tropical storm in a calendar year. However, should there be an unusually rampant number of storms to exceed the list of names, they will be given names from the Greek alphabet: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and so on.
Extreme Facts about Hurricanes
- Christopher Columbus wrote the first known report of a hurricane in 1495
- Hurricanes in the Southern Hemisphere rotate in a clockwise direction, while those in the Northern Hemisphere turn counter-clockwise
- In order to spin, hurricanes need what is known as the Coriolis Force. This force is weak at the equator, which is why hurricanes never form there.
- In one day a hurricane can produce enough energy to run the lights of Las Vegas for many years
- While hurricanes can last for weeks, most typically last approximately 10 days
- Though sometimes excessive in their damage, hurricanes are actually beneficial and have an important place in the earth’s weather system. They act as giant fans, redistributing hot air from the tropics to the poles. They help balance temperatures and moisture around the Earth. Without them, vast areas of the planet would be too hot to sustain life.