Why do storms get named?

5th February 2020 Last updated at 16:58
A HISTORY OF STORM NAMING

The naming of storms has been going on for centuries - as far back, in fact, as the 1500s. Saints were a popular choice back then; a hurricane hit Puerto Rico on October 4th 1526 as the Catholic feast day of St Francis of Assisi was being celebrated - so the storm was named San Francisco.

It is thought that the first meteorologist to officially give storms names was the widely-travelled Clement Wragge. Born in Staffordshire, he moved to Australia and initially used characters from Greek and Roman mythology. But when the government of the day failed to appoint him director of a new meteorological bureau, he showed his frustration by naming some of the cyclones in the southern hemisphere after Australian politicians.

Destroyed buildings at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina after Hurricane Hazel hit in October 1954.
Getty Images/Bettman
The aftermath of Hurricane Hazel in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina in October 1954. It was the costliest, most intense hurricane of the season.

In the late 1940s, the US Air Force Hurricane Office in Miami, Florida began to name tropical cyclones in the North Atlantic using the phonetic spelling alphabet. At the time, these were just for internal communications and not released to the public. Confusion soon began when the phonetic alphabet of the time (Able; Baker; Charlie; Dog; Easy; Fox etc) changed to a less anglicised version which is closer to the one we know today (Alpha; Bravo; Charlie; Delta).

To avoid arguments, it was decided to use women's names for the storms. It was also thought it would be less confusing for the US Air Force radio announcers to use something different to the phonetic alphabet to describe weather systems, as the phonetic alphabet would also be used for other military communications.

By the early 1950s, US meteorologists began to realise that using short, easily-remembered names was a simple, effective way to communicate the potential impacts of major storms. This was especially important when two or more were happening at the same time, so the National Hurricane Center started officially naming tropical cyclones. Women's names alone were used for two more decades, but since 1979 they have alternated with men's.

After the change was made, a Princeton University study in 2014 suggested feminine-named hurricanes caused "significantly more deaths, apparently because they lead to lower perceived risk and consequently less preparedness".

Local residents climb over destroyed cars and collapsed buildings after Hurricane Audrey hit Lousiana in June 1957
Getty Images/Shel Hershon
Local residents climb over destroyed cars and collapsed buildings after Hurricane Audrey hit Lousiana in June 1957. It was one of the deadliest tropical cyclones in US history.
WHY DO WE NAME STORMS IN THE UK?

In 2015, the UK Met Office and the Republic of Ireland weather service, Met Éireann, decided to follow in the footsteps of their US counterparts. They launched the "Name Our Storms" campaign, in the hope of raising public awareness of severe weather. A Met Office spokeswoman said, "People are latching on to the names. They've been particularly effective at gaining attention on social media, including groups who were previously 'harder to reach'."

For the 2019-20 storm season, the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) has joined the initiative. Director General Gerard van der Steenhoven said, "As storms are not confined to national borders, it makes a lot of sense to give common names to such extreme weather events."

WHAT IS THE CRITERIA FOR NAMING A STORM?

A storm is named when it has the potential to trigger an amber/orange or red warning and have "substantial" impact. However, it starts to get a little tricky at this stage as the separate agencies have slightly different criteria when it comes to issuing a warning.

The UK Met Office warning system is based on potential impacts from severe weather and the likelihood of such events happening. Both Met Éireann and KMNI use a combination of numerical-based criteria and potential impact when deciding whether or not to issue a warning. For example, widespread wind gusts of up to 80mph in Ireland would warrant an orange warning from Met Éireann, whereas the UK Met Office would consider only the impacts of the same gusts before issuing an amber warning.

UKMO Warning Matrix
UKMO
UKMO warning matrix

Factors the UK Met Office would take into account include the time of year - stronger winds in summer or autumn would have a greater impact as the trees are still in full leaf. Also the location - is the stormy weather hitting an area of high population which would again have an effect on more people? It is also worth noting that the three agencies each cover distinct geographical areas and severe weather will not always affect all areas.

Whilst storms are often named due to wind strength, rain and snow will also be considered if impacts could lead to flooding or disruption.

HOW ARE STORM NAMES CHOSEN?

Each year, the three meteorological agencies ask members of the public for their favourite names and the list is compiled from these suggestions, reflecting the diversity across the different countries. Storms are named in alphabetical order and since the initiative started back in 2015 we have not gone further than K - Storm Katie, which hit the UK on Easter Monday 2016. So if your name starts with a letter towards the end of the alphabet it is highly unlikely ever to be used.

2019/2020 storm names
UKMO
2019/2020 storm names

France, Spain and Portugal also name storms which affect their area, much like the UK Met Office, Met Éireann and KMNI - the idea is that countries cluster together based on similar meteorology. This explains why sometimes a storm name may appear in the UK's media which seems out of place. A more unified European naming system is unlikely, as storms in the Mediterranean, for example, would never come towards the UK.

Occasionally, we will see remnants of hurricanes or tropical storms moving across the Atlantic. When this happens we would refer to the name they were given by the National Hurricane Center in the US to avoid confusion. Like the US, we also do not use the letters Q, U, X, Y and Z, although it is quite unlikely we would get that far in the alphabet anyway.