How Are Hurricanes Named?

While the monikers of current hurricanes — including Earl and Fiona — may seem simple, the system of naming hurricanes has a long and complicated history.

From using latitude-longitude location points to military code words, the road to perfecting a hurricane-naming system has been bumpy, and it's still evolving.

A jumble of names

Originally, hurricanes were given the names of saints who were honored on the day they occurred, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. For example, Hurricane Santa Ana of 1825 hit on July 26, the day dedicated to Saint Anne.

If two hurricanes struck on the same day, the newer tempest had a suffix tacked on to its name. For example, Hurricane San Felipe struck Puerto Rico on Sept. 13, 1876, and another storm hit the area on Sept. 13, 1928. The latter storm was named Hurricane San Felipe II.

Later, latitude-longitude positions were used in the naming process. However, this cumbersome identification method was confusing during radio communication and more subject to error, according to NOAA. The United States nixed it in 1951 in favor of a naming system based on the phonetic alphabet (including names such as Able, Baker and Charlie) developed by the military.

This system also proved to be too confusing, so in 1953, weather forecasters began using names assigned by NOAA’s National Hurricane Center. Initially, all hurricane names were female, with the first "girl" hurricane named Maria, after the heroine of the 1941 novel "Storm" by George Rippey Stewart, according to NOAA.

"In a very wise move, men's names were introduced in 1979, and are now rotated with women's names," Dennis Feltgen, a spokesperson for the National Hurricane Center, told Life's Little Mysteries.

How are names picked?

Now, hurricane names are determined by the World Meteorological Organization headquartered in Geneva. The WMO is in charge of updating the six weather regions of the world (the United States is in region four, which consists of North America, Central America and the Caribbean).

For Atlantic tropical storms, the National Hurricane Center created six lists of hurricane names that are maintained and updated by the WMO through an international voting committee. The lists contain French, Spanish, Dutch and English names because "hurricanes affect other nations and are tracked by the public and weather services of many countries," according to NOAA.

The six lists are kept in constant rotation. For example, the 2010 name list will be used again in 2016.

While names of hurricanes previously included names from A to Z (for example, hurricane names from 1958 included Udele, Virgy, Wilna, Xrae, Yurith and Zorna), current lists exclude Q, U, X, Y and Z because there are not enough names starting with these letters to include them, Feltgen said.

The lists do change, however. If a storm is especially devastating, such as 2005's Katrina, a vote is taken by the WMO to determine whether it would be inappropriate to use the name again. If a name is taken off the list, another name that shares its first letter is selected and voted to replace it, Feltgen said.

The names on the six lists can be pretty unique. For example, names planned for 2010 hurricanes include Gaston, Otto, Shary and Virginie.

A storm earns its hurricane handle once it has been identified to have a counterclockwise circulation and wind speeds of 39 mph (63 kph) or greater. It is then assigned the next name alphabetically in line from the year's current name list by the Tropical Prediction Center in Miami.

This article was provided by Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience. 

Remy Melina was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University where she graduated with honors.