Iselle and Julio. These two were the stars of last week’s news cycle. They convinced me to buy water and canned goods, top off my gas tank, and bring in deck chairs. They even got me to bring the dog into the house—a true first.
Newscasters went crazy over them. Thankfully it ended without any major injuries or death. Iselle took on the Big Island and quickly broke up. Julio wandered north and sent nothing here other than a summer swell.
The whole ordeal got me thinking why we name storms in the first place. Naming something personalizes it. Tornadoes in Kansas don’t have names. Neither do the icy, winter blizzards that wreak havoc across the plains. Why the different treatment? How come we name hurricanes, tropical storms, depressions, and typhoons? It might’ve started with a colorful weatherman.
It might have started with the colorful Clement Wragge, an English meteorologist sent to Queensland, Australia. Wragge started naming storms in his weather bulletins.
Wragge was a real character. His statements on storm movements and their names were highly entertaining. For example, in 1899, he informed the Australian public about a new tropical disturbance named Mahina. “Mahina,” he explained, “is a girl’s name culled from fair Tahiti with its coral strand, waving palm trees and mountain peaks. . . . We fear . . . that Mahina will not prove so soft and gentle as the Tahitian maiden of that name.” Other times he’d use names from the Bible, mythological creatures, and even politicians he didn’t like.
Author George Stewart is believed to have come across Wragge forty years later. Stewart wrote a novel called, “Storm,” in which is main character is Maria, a non-tropical storm that ravages California for twelve days. Maria got her name from a junior meteorologist who named systems after ex-girlfriends.
Real life meteorologists assigned to Saipan in the middle of World War Two were fans of the book. They started naming storms after their wives. By 1945, the military approved of a list of names for typhoons in the Western Pacific.
The names came in handy. Instead of using difficult coordinates to identify the storm in bulletins and communications, a quick name for a system that lasted for several days proved ideal and easy to use.
Naming the large storms caught on in military weather bureaus. By 1950, the National Weather Service adopted the practice. When Hawaii became a state in 1959, the Central Pacific bureau had adopted a list. For the rest of the twentieth century, tropical cyclones in the Atlantic and Pacific had names. The Indian Ocean basins came out with lists in the early 2000s.
But there are rules to naming a storm. First off, not every raincloud gets an appellation. In order to be a named storm, it has to be a cyclone, like a tropical depression or a tropical storm. From there, the name depends on where it started.
The ocean is carved up into different regions. In the Pacific, there’s the east, which is right off the coast of Mexico. That’s where most of our tropical cyclones get real close to Hawaii. The eastern Pacific has six lists of names for storms in alphabetical order (inexplicably excluding the letter Q). Iselle and Julio were on the list. (Karina, Lowell, and Marie are next). The same list is used after a six-year period. The Central Pacific has its list of Hawaiian names. That’s where Iniki, Iwa, and the more recent Wale came from.
The names are used over and over again until it’s retired. A name gets off the list when the storm causes a great deal of damage. That’s why there will never be another Katrina or Iniki. Flossie, on the other hand, wasn’t destructive enough to get it off the list. Expect another storm named Flossie in 2019.
The names themselves are created by a committee from each region. The Central Pacific uses Hawaiian names. The Eastern Pacific tends to use Spanish names since they originate off the coast of Mexico. The name game gets even more complicated in the Western Pacific. There, a group of countries in the region like Japan, Korea, and China get to pick names on the list. The end result is a hodge-podge of different names from all over Asia and it’s not in alphabetical order.
As for the names themselves, they are not intended to target any group of people or a particular person. According to the World Meteorological Organization, the names are designed to be short, easy to communicate, and familiar to the people in the region in which they originate.
So much for Wragge’s practice of naming storms after politicians. Given the timing of the primary election, this would have been a perfect opportunity to name these storms Colleen and Brian.