The first major storm of this year’s Atlantic hurricane season, Hurricane Harvey, has caused at least 51 deaths. It is causing ongoing catastrophic flooding and economic losses of up to $190 billion.
Chances are the name Harvey will be associated with devastation and chaos, just like Katrina, Hugo, Sandy, and Rita.
Naming hurricanes to avoid confusion
The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has approved names for tropical cyclones in ten meteorological regions in the world. These include the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico and the North Atlantic region, the Eastern North Pacific region and the southwest India Ocean region.
Five tropical cyclone regional bodies submit a list for their respective regions, with names for each year, in alphabetical order.
These should be names that people are familiar with and that reflect the regional population. For example, Bakung and Flamboyan for Jakarta, or Freddy, Sean and Iggy for Australia.
The point is to facilitate easy communication in times of crisis.
Before naming was introduced, meteorologists tracked storms in the order in which they occurred in a given year.
To name them, they used old more cumbersome identification methods, such as listing them by their geographical position, with a name like ‘Hurricane 12.8°N latitude and 54.7° W longitude’.
It caused confusion, especially when there were several cyclones at the same time.
The WMO found that giving storms short, distinctive names was quicker and less subject to error.
What’s in a name?
The intergovernmental organization points out that hurricanes are not named after any particular person, but that wasn’t always the case.
In the mid-1900s meteorologists played around with naming hurricanes after their wives, their sisters or their ex-girlfriends.
Even the original WMO-lists featured only women’s names. Male names were only introduced in 1979. To avoid any gender bias, today’s lists alternates between male and female names.
It turns out gender has a major impact on a hurricane’s death toll.
Why female names are deadlier than male hurricanes
A study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year suggests that “feminine-named hurricanes cause significantly more deaths, apparently because they lead to a lower perceived risk and consequently less preparedness.”
While the historical data backs that up, the researcher also experimented gender-bias with hypothetical storms.
They found that changing a severe hurricane’s name from Charley to Eloise could nearly triple its death toll.
In another test, participants were presented with the same hurricane named ‘Alexander’ or ‘Alexandra’. Hurricane Alexander was consistently considered to be much riskier.
Female hurricanes can be underestimated, as people believe they wouldn’t be capable of much destruction. It does not suggest that storms with women’s names calm people, but rather shows that male names scare people while female names fail to do that.