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Why Do We Name Hurricanes, And What Happens When We Run Out Of Names?

NASA / GSFC

Right now, scientists and weather-watchers are keeping a close eye on tropical storm Harvey, along with storms with names like Lee, Ophelia and Vince.

But why do we give these huge storms human names? And who decides on the names? There are rumors that hurricanes are named for politicians, or victims of the Titanic disaster, but that's not true.

To understand the naming rules you need to go back to the 1950s: back then storms were named for the year they formed and their order, or sometimes for their longitude and latitude. This messy system full of long numbers lead to confusion, and mistakes that put lots of people in danger.

So beginning in the 1950s we started assigning human names to hurricanes in an alphabetical order. At first the names were all female, following the tradition of giving ships female names, but men's names were introduced in the 70s.

There are 21 names chosen each year for naming storms and hurricanes, since the letters Q, U, X, Y and Z aren't used - sorry, no hurricane Zach or Yolanda. The names also alternate between male and female names.

But while new names are picked every year, you wouldn't want your suggestion to be chosen.

Names for hurricanes are picked in advance by the World Meteorological Oranization, which is part of the U.N.

They have a set of 6 lists of 21 names, which rotates every year, so in 2017 we will see names reused from 2011 and 2005, except for a certain one.

When a storm causes enough damage or kills a large number of people, it would be inappropriate to reuse it. Katrina was retired from the lists after hurricane Katrina in 2005, but we might see its replacement, Katia, later this year.

But what happens if the list of 21 names gets used up? It's very rare, but if it does happen the organization starts using Greek letters (Alpha, Beta, Gamma...) to name that year's extra storms.

Sadly, the eggheads at the WMO don't accept suggestions from the public for the names they pick, but that doesn't stop people from sending them in.

"We have a lot of inquiries every year requesting, 'Please use my name or my wife's name or my daughter's name,'" says Koji Kuroiwa, who runs the WMO's hurricane program. "In the meantime, there's some negative comments, for example a woman named Irene who wasn't very happy.”

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[H/T: BBC]

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