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Naming the whirlwinds

Before Irene emptied itself over the east coast of America came the unheralded Harvey. If things turn really stormy, we may witness the arrival of Whitney.

india Updated: Aug 30, 2011 22:40 IST

Before Irene emptied itself over the east coast of America came the unheralded Harvey. If things turn really stormy, we may witness the arrival of Whitney. In the uncertain world of hurricanes and cyclones, a reassuring degree of predictability can be found in their banal and homespun names.

The history of naming intense storms is almost as twisty as the winds from Irene, Nanmadol and Yasi this year. Clement Wragge, a British meteorologist, is credited with christening tropical storms with the names of people in the 19th century. His innovation didn't catch on until after World War 2 when Amer-ican authorities realised names would clearly communicate storm warnings to ships and the public. Different oceanic regions then developed their own naming conventions.

Atlantic storms were first named in 1950 when the phonetic alphabet conjured up some exciting monikers, including hurricanes Dog and Love. Three years later, they were identified using an alphabetical list of female names, following the naval habit of naming ships, and storms, after women.

Creating a new list of girls' names each year obviously taxed the imagination of (male) forecasters, and Atlantic hurricane names came to be picked from a rotating list. This has evolved into six annual lists created by the World Meteorological Organisation.

However, the idea that women might share the capricious, changeable temperament of storms caused affront, so from 1979 storms were named alternately after girls and boys. The revamped Atla-ntic list includes a sprinkling of Spanish and French names to better represent the cultures being pummelled.

This year's Atlantic hurricanes have the same names as in 2005 but for several exceptions. After Jose in 2005 came Katrina. Because Katrina caused such destruction and loss of life, its name has been 'retired'. The 11th hurricane of 2011 will be named Katia.

In other regions, meteorological authorities deploy different names. Cyclone Yasi, which struck Australia earlier this year, emerged as a tropical cyclone in Fiji so it was given the Fijian name for the fragrant tree, sandalwood, by meteorologists there. Australia's Bureau of Meteorology accepts submissions from the public (current names include Cathy, Iggy and Kirrily) but warns it will not choose names that cause ridicule, such as naming a destructive blast of hot air after a politician.
The views expressed by the author are personal.