The deadly storm which killed 18 people in Sardinia last week was widely referred to as ‘Cyclone Cleopatra’ and the current system pounding the east coast of the US is known as ‘Boreas’. Until recently names were only given to tropical and sub-tropical cyclones. So why has the trend spread to Europe and North America?
Names have been assigned to tropical storms in the Atlantic for hundreds of years. People living in the Caribbean named storms according to the nearest saints’ day according to the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church.
In modern times names were replaced by a latitude/longitude designation based on where the storms had originated. This system was clumsy and confusing; it was superceded during World War Two. Then, meteorologists began assigning female names, supposedly because, like some women, these storms were often ‘wild and unpredictable’.
Allowing for the political incorrectness of this system, it did at least offer clarity and a lack of ambiguity and, in 1953, the system was adopted by the US National Hurricane Center for storms originating in the Atlantic Ocean.
In the late 1970s male names were introduced to the list with storm names alternating between male and female.
A new list of names is compiled ahead of each season and the names of particularly destructive or deadly storms are retired as a mark of sensitivity to those who have suffered loss from a previous storm with the same name.
Similar lists are compiled for storms across the Pacific basin although local names are assigned to some of the storms by the relevant meteorological organization. For example, the devastating Super Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines earlier this month, was known as Yolanda to the Filipinos.
For storms over the landmasses of Europe and Asia there has never been such a naming system. Major storms were sometimes given a title, such as ‘The Great Strom’ which hit the UK and northwestern Europe in October 1987, or most recently, ‘The St Jude’s Day Storm’, named after the patron saint of lost causes whose day falls on 28 October.
The St Jude’s Day Storm also attracted the name Christian, given by a German university’s meteorological department. These storm names can be bought for a fee. Areas of high pressure, or anticyclones, can also be purchased, although these attract a higher fee.
Giving a storm a name does have some logic in the social media age as it allows a hash tag to be attached to the name so it can be readily identified by the twitter generation.
The problem is that more than one name can lead to confusion, and unless the name originates from a recognised meteorological organization, such as the World Meteorological Organisation, the UK Met Office or the US National Weather Service, the system is open to abuse.
If the current trend continues, how long will it be before we have branded weather systems; Hurricane [insert name of wet weather tyre here] or High Pressure [insert name of refreshing fizzy drink here]?