How do storms like Tropical Storm Bonnie get their names?

As far as storms and hurricanes go, Bonnie wasn’t a huge threat. Wait — do you realize how strange it is to refer to a mass of air and water by name, let alone an apellation that reminds you of that neighbor who bakes really great chocolate chip cookies?

Briefly, here’s how the names for storms are picked. The world is roughly divided into six major basins where storm activity occurs. Each basin has an organization that comes up with lists of names a few years in advance. The basins don’t all follow the same rules for coming up with the names. In one basin, they don’t even use human names necessarily.  But the namers for the North Atlantic and Northeastern Pacific share the following system, according to the National Hurricane Center: male and female names alternate in alphabetical order, and the gender that the list starts with alternates every year. The lists are recycled every six years.The difference between hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons is another fascinating story, which we explain here.Letters that rarely begin names (like Q) are excluded from consideration. (There will never be a Hurricane Quetzalcoatl.) Not until  a tropical depression transforms into a tropical storm is it eligible for a name. Wherever the storm-level activity kicks in determines which basin has naming privileges.

When tropical storms reach a certain velocity, they become hurricanes or cyclones. Hurricane names can be retired from the list if they have caused a certain level of destruction. And if there are so many storms in one region that all the alphabetical names are used up, additional storms are called “Alpha,” Beta,” etc., through the Greek alphabet (alpha, beta . . .)

The following are the remaining names on the 2010 North Atlantic list: Colin, Danielle, Earl, Fiona,Gaston, Hermine, Igor, Julia, Karl, Lisa, Matthew, Nicole, Otto, Paula, Richard, Shary, Tomas, Virginie, and Walter.

Originally the names for storms near North America were only female. The sexist implications of the practice led to the current system.

Ironically, the name Bonnie couldn’t have a  more pleasant meaning: the Scottish proper noun and occasional adjective can mean “pretty, healthy, or peaceful.” A deeper irony is found in the lyrics to ubiquitous Scottish folk song, “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean:”

“Oh blow the winds o’er the ocean

And blow the winds o’er the sea

Oh blow the winds o’er the ocean

And bring back my Bonnie to me.”

Do you think giving storms human names is unfair to people who share that name? What do you think storms should be called?

And speaking of names, “typhoon” and “hurricane” derive from the names of Gods and monsters. Learn the gruesome details here.

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