A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Who decides on the names of hurricanes?

October 27, 1989

Dear Cecil:

Who decides on the names of hurricanes? They go over different countries, so if the U.S. names a hurricane, can Cuba give it a different name? This is something everyone should know.

Cecil replies:

Call it meteorological imperialism, but the U.S. pretty much calls the shots in the hurricane department.

American weather agencies began assigning girls' names to major tropical storms in 1953. Apparently they got the idea from military forecasters.

Later the assigning of names for Atlantic hurricanes was turned over to the World Meteorological Organization, a UN agency, theoretically making it an international responsibility. (Naming of hurricanes in the eastern Pacific is handled through a bilateral agreement with Mexico.)

Evenhanded as all this sounds, there's no doubt Uncle Sam still runs the show. When the U.S., prodded by feminists, proposed that boys' names alternate with girls' starting in 1979, a committee of the WMO accepted without a whimper.

To keep the Central and South American countries happy, a few Spanish names (e.g., Ernesto, Rafael) are sprinkled amongst the Anglos.

In case you were wondering, lists of names for hurricanes (and, in the western Pacific, typhoons) are established well in advance. For the Atlantic there are four alphabetical lists, which rotate so the same list is used every fourth year. Names of blockbuster storms are retired for a while.

While this is all very rational and scientific, I still prefer the system used in Australia around the turn of the century. Folks there used to name hurricanes after politicians.

Basically a lot of wind, all they do is go in circles, God knows what they'll mess up next — I ask you, doesn't it make perfect sense?

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