Monday, August 12, 2019

One More Time: Hurricane Names

Now that we are, statistically, getting into the thick of hurricane season (until mid-October) we have to wade through what seems to be the inevitable annual silliness regarding hurricane names.

From last week's Wall Street Journal:
entire article at the purple link, may be behind a paywall
The gist of the article is that hurricanes should be named after men rather than after women. The author writes,

I started to wonder if the unimposing names we give hurricanes might be inadvertently causing people not to evacuate. 
Sure enough, a 2014 National Academy of Sciences study found the death tolls from hurricanes with feminine names tend to be higher than from those with masculine names. The scientists hypothesized that male names are scarier than female ones and tested it by asking subjects to estimate the intensity of hypothetical storms. Sure enough, they expected Dolly to be weaker than Omar. 
Okay, I'm not sure that Hurricane Mata Hari would be viewed as less dangerous than Hurricane Bruce but this is well-intended and should be taken into consideration.

But, then, the article goes off the rails:

It’s high time the WMO updated its names. One solution would be to name storms after predators—say, Tiger or Shark. If Omar is scarier then Dolly, Shark is surely scarier than Omar. Or maybe the WMO can take inspiration from horror films. Tropical storm Poltergeist. Hurricane Slasher. Or Demon, Devil, Jaws, Chucky...
So naming a Category 5 storm with winds of 156 mph Annie is not a good idea. It’s a lot like putting a rose rather than a skull and crossbones on a bottle of poison.
I often wonder why people who write articles like this (he is an advertising person from Cleveland) don't bother to research the history of hurricane naming before they make these suggestions? Let me briefly recap:

During World War II, U.S. military meteorologists named hurricanes after their girlfriends. The naming was popularized in George R. Stewart's best seller Storm. It rapidly caught on because it was a lot earlier to remember "Hurricane Betsy" than "than hurricane located at 74.4°W and 19.1°N." Since all hurricanes were named after women, the "men's names are more scary than women's names" was not a consideration. The U.S. military, after the war, gave hurricanes names like "Dog" and they found those were less memorable than using women's names.

Jimmy Carter was elected President in 1977. He selected Juanita Krepps as his Secretary of Commerce (DoC). The U.S. National Weather Service is under the DoC. Like everyone else who seems to touch this topic, she didn't bother to research the history of hurricane naming. Either she was told or someone got the idea that "hurricanes are named after women because they, like women, are unpredictable." She then ordered that hurricanes must also be named after men.

While we weren't as good at forecasting hurricanes then as we are today, the meteorologists who did a fantastic job of forecasting monster hurricanes like Carla (1964) and Camille (1969) were shocked and insulted to learn the Secretary of the DoC Krepps (their boss) thought hurricanes were "unpredictable."

In spite of almost yearly suggestions to change the naming system, the naming system has remained the same since the 1970's.

So, what are the issues with naming weak hurricanes after women and strong hurricanes after men as the article recommends?
  • The names have to be decided years in advance (I won't go into all of the reasons why).
  • We don't know in 2019 whether the fourth tropical system of 2023 will be a weak tropical storm or a monster like Andrew. 
  • Most importantly, there is no such thing as a 'weak' tropical storm or hurricane. All genuine hurricanes (sustained winds of 74 mph or higher) have dangerous, damaging winds. But, many tropical storms, while they have weaker winds (but often enough to cause power failures) produce serious flooding rains.  
As indicated above, there is, perhaps, merit in naming storms exclusively after men or women. 

Beyond that, meteorologists have an incredibly difficult task at trying to educate and reeducate a highly mobile population the differences between hurricane watch, hurricane warning, tropical storm watch, tropical storm warning, storm surge watch, storm surge warning, flood watch, flash flood warning etc., etc. Changing the naming system every few years (as the publications that publish these articles seem to desire, perhaps because they sell newspapers) to one that is supposedly correlated to storm intensity will make a very difficult job virtually impossible. 

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