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How Do Hurricanes Get Their Names?
On Sept. 6 at 1:45 p.m. EDT (1745 GMT) the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer or MODIS instrument aboard NASA's Aqua satellite captured a visible-light image of Hurricane Irma over the Leeward Islands and Puerto Rico.
Credit: NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team

Hurricane Irma is continuing on its destructive path toward Florida. Hurricane Jose is gathering strength in the Atlantic. And Hurricane Katia is brewing in the Gulf of Mexico. Irma,  Jose, Katia? How did such energetic forces of nature end up with these names?

Hurricanes are assigned names for the purpose of public safety, Clare Nullis, a spokesperson for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), told Live Science in an email.It's easier for the media to publicize a storm and increase interest in warnings when a storm has a name, according to the WMO.

Hurricane Irma got its name because it follows Harvey on a predetermined list established by the WMO for hurricanes (below) that occur in the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico and the North Atlantic Ocean. [Hurricane Irma Photos: Images of a Monster Storm]

2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022
Arlene Alberto Andrea Arthur Ana Alex
Bret Beryl Barry Bertha Bill Bonnie
Cindy Chris Chantal Cristobal Claudette Colin
Don Debby Dorian Dolly Danny Danielle
Emily Ernesto Erin Edouard Elsa Earl
Franklin Florence Fernand Fay Fred Fiona
Gert Gordon Gabrielle Gonzalo Grace Gaston
Harvey Helene Humberto Hanna Henri Hermine
Irma Isaac Imelda Isaias Ida Ian
Jose Joyce Jerry Josephine Julian Julia
Katia Kirk Karen Kyle Kate Karl
Lee Leslie Lorenzo Laura Larry Lisa
Maria Michael Melissa Marco Mindy Martin
Nate Nadine Nestor Nana Nicholas Nicole
Ophelia Oscar Olga Omar Odette Owen
Philippe Patty Pablo Paulette Peter Paula
Rina Rafael Rebekah Rene Rose Richard
Sean Sara Sebastien Sally Sam Shary
Tammy Tony Tanya Teddy Teresa Tobias
Vince Valerie Van Vicky Victor Virginie
Whitney William Wendy Wilfred Wanda Walter
Source: WMO          

Six years' worth of names have already been planned out, including 21 names per year. But although the names more or less follow the alphabet, don't hold your breath for Hurricanes Quinn or Umberto — there aren't any names on the list that begin with Q, U, X, Y or Z because there aren't enough names that begin with these letters, according to Nullis.

In the unlikely case that there are more hurricanes than predetermined names in a year, hurricanes in this region of the world are named after Greek letters: Alpha, Beta, Gamma and so on, according to the WMO. Storms have been named Alpha—or Alfa—a few times: in 1972, 1973, and again in 2005, although the latter storm, which blasted Haiti and the Dominican Republic with torrential rain was overshadowed by devastating effects of Hurricane Wilma.

Hurricane names are retired upon request of the country's representative at annual meetings of a WMO committee called the Regional Association IV Hurricane Committee. This is done when a storm has been so damaging that a future use of the name is considered insensitive, according to Nullis. Katrina, Sandy, and Ike—exceptionally disastrous Atlantic hurricanes that affected the U.S.—have all been cut from the list (below). 

Year Retired Name
2016 Matthew
2016 Otto
2015 Erika
2015 Joaquin
2013 Ingrid
2012 Sandy
2011 Irene
2010 Tomas
2010 Igor
2008 Paloma
2008 Ike
2008 Gustav
2007 Noel
2007 Felix
2007 Dean
2005 Wilma
2005 Stan
2005 Rita
2005 Katrina
2005 Dennis
2004 Jeanne
2004 Ivan
2004 Frances
2004 Charley
2003 Juan
2003 Isabel
2003 Fabian
2002 Lili
2002 Isidore
2001 Michelle
2001 Iris
2001 Allison
2000 Keith
1999 Lenny
1999 Floyd
1998 Mitch
1998 Georges
1996 Hortense
1996 Frances
1996 Cesar
1995 Roxanne
1995 Opal
1995 Marilyn
1995 Luis
1992 Andrew
1991 Bob
1990 Klaus
1990 Diana
1989 Hugo
1988 Joan
1988 Gilbert
1985 Gloria
1985 Elena
1983 Alicia
1980 Allen
1979 Frederic
1979 David
1977 Anita
1975 Eloise
1974 Fifi
1974 Carmen
1972 Agnes
1970 Celia
1969 Camille
1967 Beulah
1966 Inez
1965 Betsy
1964 Dora
1964 Cleo
1964 Hilda
1963 Flora
1961 Hattie
1961 Carla
1960 Donna
1957 Audrey
1955 Janet
1955 Ione
1955 Diane
1955 Connie
1954 Hazel
1954 Edna
1954 Carol

But the process of assigning names to Atlantic hurricanes wasn't always so neat.

Beginning in 1950, storms in this region were named after the Joint Army/Navy phonetic alphabet — Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog — until three years later, when the convention changed and female names were used instead, according to Patrick Fitzpatrick, a professor of meteorology at Mississippi State University and author of the book "Hurricanes: A Reference Handbook" (ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2006). In the interest of gender equality, male names were added to the mix in 1979, according to Nullis.

Officially, storms aren't named after specific people, according to the WMO, but this doesn't prevent people from being upset about sharing their name with a massive storm, Nullis said.

She recalled a complaint from last year by a man named Matthew who was unhappy about sharing his name with the 2016 storm that wreaked so much havoc in Haiti. In another instance, someone said the names aren't sufficiently "tough." (Matthews everywhere may be heartened to know that out of respect for the fatalities and extensive damages caused by the 2016 hurricane of the same name, the name Matthew was recently retired, making way for Martin, according to the WMO session proceedings.)

Others have differing ideas about how hurricanes should be named, including some who suggest they should be named after science-fiction characters and others who offer up their own names, Nullis said.

Then, there are the more vindictive individuals who want to imprint their personal resentments on natural disasters.

"We had one lady asking us to name a hurricane after her ex-husband," Nullis said.

As for Irma, this is the first year the name has been used for a hurricane. Irma took the place of Irene, a name that was retired from rotation at the request of the United States in 2012. Whether Irma or Harvey, the moniker given to the recent hurricane that devastated southeastern Texas, will be retired is a decision that will be made by the Regional Association IV Hurricane Committee at the next meeting, to be held in France in 2018, according to the WMO.

Original article on Live Science.