is poised to wreak havoc along the U.S. East Coast this weekend, with some 600 miles of shoreline under official hurricane warnings. After hitting North Carolina's Outer Banks Saturday, the storm is expected to batter several major cities, including Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.
As with most big hurricanes that threaten land, Irene's human name has become a buzzword throughout her projected path. Millions of people are hearing, speaking, researching and remembering it, and if the National Hurricane Center's forecasts
hold true, the name "Irene" could join the ranks of legendary storms such as Betsy, Andrew, Hugo or Katrina.
But where do those names come from? Why do we give human names to violent, mindless masses of water and wind? The practice dates back to the 1950s, although people have been naming tropical cyclones for centuries.
Before the 1940s, only the worst storms were given names, usually based on the place or time of year they made landfall: There was the Sea Islands Hurricane of 1893, the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900, the Miami Hurricane of 1926 and the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, to name a few. Scientists and forecasters often assigned unofficial numbers to tropical cyclones — Tropical Storm One, Hurricane Two, etc. — but the practice of using more memorable and relatable names didn't begin until the 1950 hurricane season.
1950 marked the first year when Atlantic tropical cyclones received official names, although they still weren't human ones. These initial names were taken from the Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet
, so the 1950 season featured such bizarrely named storms as Hurricane Dog, Hurricane Easy, Hurricane Jig, Hurricane Item and Hurricane Love. There was also a Tropical Storm How
in early October.
This tradition continued for the next two years, but it had a glaring flaw: The same list of names was recycled every year, so the 1950-'52 seasons each featured a Hurricane Able through at least Hurricane Fox. That became confusing, so in 1953 the NHC began using female human names, which proved far more successful. Not only did it make storm identification easier, but it also helped authorities and news outlets pass warnings on to the public — and helped the public pay attention to those warnings.
"[N]ames are presumed to be far easier to remember than numbers and technical terms," the World Meteorological Organization
explains on its website. "Many agree that appending names to storms makes it easier for the media to report on tropical cyclones, heightens interest in warnings and increases community preparedness."
The first hurricane names were often borrowed from forecasters' wives, but in 1979 men's names were added to the mix, too. The WMO now maintains and updates the master list of names, which alternates between male and female; six lists are rotated from year to year in the Atlantic, so the 2011 names will be used again in 2017. But when a cyclone is bad enough, its name can be retired
to honor its victims and survivors. Twenty-five Atlantic hurricane names have been retired since 2001, including Ivan (2004), Katrina (2005), Rita (2005), Ike (2008) and Tomas (2010).
Below is the list of names
for the 2011 Atlantic hurricane season:
Naming Pacific cyclones is often more complex than in the Atlantic, with different lists for the Eastern, Central and Western Pacific, as well as for Australia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the North Indian Ocean and the Southwest Indian Ocean. See the NHC's list of worldwide tropical cyclone names
for more info.