How Hurricanes Get Their Names

World Metereological Organization 

In theory, a butterfly flapping its wings halfway across the world could have caused the eddies that gave birth to Hurricane Irene, but the origin of the storm’s name is not nearly so fanciful.

Hurricanes are named by the World Meteorological Organization, an agency of the United Nations. The group was established in 1950, right around the time that, in the Southern Hemisphere at least, such storms began to be given both men’s and women’s names.

Storms have long been given names for simplicity’s sake - rather than using  numbers or descriptions - in messages of warning, but there were often arbitrary: a hurricane could be named after a ship it wrecked, for example, according to information on the meteorological group’s Web site.

Starting in the 1900s, proper names were used in alphabetical order. For North Atlantic storms, all of them were female, but they were randomly chosen, not, the organization stresses, selected to name the storm after a real person.

Now a multinational committee keeps lists of names for North Atlantic storms that it has maintained since 1953 (male names were added in 1979). The six lists are used in a rotation, except when a storm has been “so deadly or costly that the future use of its name on a different storm would be inappropriate for reasons of sensitivity.” Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which caused such devastation in New Orleans, and Hurricane Mitch, which struck Honduras in 1998, are among the names that have been retired.

In case you were curious, here’s the list of retired names. I forgot that they actually got down to Wilma in 2005.