Fearsome Hurricane Irma cut a path of devastation across the northern Caribbean, leaving at least 10 dead and thousands homeless after destroying buildings and uprooting trees on a track Thursday that could lead to a catastrophic strike on Florida.
The most potent Atlantic Ocean hurricane ever, Irma weakened only slightly Thursday morning and remained a powerful Category 5 storm with winds of 285 kph, according to the US National Hurricane Centre.
First there was Harvey, which put much of Houston under water. Now Hurricane Irma is rampaging across the Caribbean.
Meanwhile, Jose – still a tropical storm – is brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, while Katia in the Atlantic is threatening to ramp up to hurricane force in the coming days.
The attentive reader might notice a pattern here: “H”, “I”, “J”, “K”...
Indeed, the monikers of major tropical storms in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico are drawn from an alphabetical list made by the US National Hurricane Centre (NHC), which prepares 21 names per year seven years in advance.
The first major tempest of the June-November 2022 season, in other words, will be Alex, and the 21st – if there is one – will be Walter.
But naming tropical storms that may morph into killer hurricanes is serious business, which is why the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) maintains veto power.
It is rarely exercised, but in April 2015 an expert panel from the WMO banished the name “Isis” -- the ancient Egyptian god of fertility – from the 2016 list for the eastern North Pacific, which has its own rotating roll call, as does the central North Pacific.
Having a hurricane share billing with the Islamic State militant group that routinely takes credit for acts of terrorism was deemed in bad taste.
Politically incorrect storms
Each submits 10 candidate names – animals, plants, astrological signs, mythological figures or just about anything else – which are reviewed by the WMO’s Typhoon Committee, based in Tokyo. Once adopted, nations can still opt out in their national weather reporting.
To be on the safe side and avoid confusion, the storms are numbered as well.
For tropical cyclones in the Indian ocean, the naming process involves – in alphabetical order – Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Myanmar, Oman, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
Back in the Atlantic, the names-in-waiting for super storms are a mix of English, Spanish and French, in deference to the languages of the countries most at risk. They also alternate boy-girl.
That was not always the case. During World War II, US sailors took to naming storms after their wives and girlfriends. For decades after the war, US government weather experts continued to lend exclusively female identities to the region’s tropical storms and hurricanes.