I have been a follower of hurricanes for a rather long time, in fact, I can give you a definite date, ever since my namesake struck Texas in 2012 (is that a real name reveal? I probably revealed it at some other juncture) and didn’t get retired (for which I fist pumped, probably insensitively but this means I get more namesake storms in the future), but after that, I got interested in the whole naming structure of hurricanes, how the really big ones get retired, as well as loving how pretty the storms look from a safe distance and marvelling at their tracks across the Earth. I haven’t done any posts about it before because though Hurricane Matthew was about the time I started the blog, the blog was too new to comment on it. 2017, however, seems to be rivalling if not 2005, something like 1995 as a season and so hurricanes are newsworthy again, with Harvey and Irma having hit recently and as I type this Maria is raging through Dominica and will go on to hit areas already hit by Irma. So it’s current.
And I shall say this now, so I don’t have to say it all the way through, I know I’m in a privileged position when talking about hurricanes. As a Briton, I never experience hurricanes in their full force and only 1 in 50 ends up sending its pathetic remnants anywhere near my island. Unless I move to another part of the world (doing just that for 3 months soon, but the likelihood of cyclones in inland India is low. Not impossible, but low) I’ll never properly experience a hurricane or a typhoon, much less have property or loved ones destroyed by it. My interest in the whole thing is mostly academic and relates to my love of lists more than anything else, but I do recognise they are devastating for many people and if you have or will be in the path of one, I wish you the best of luck in surviving it. I may, in the course of this article say things that imply I want more destructive storms to happen. That isn’t the case, from a human, empathetic level, I hope any and all storms have no casualties and limited damage. From a storm watcher’s level, I want to see more pretty storms. In any case, I have no control over the weather, I just watch it.
Anyway, this year, we have had a few devastating storms, most strongly Irma. It, and Harvey and Maria are very likely to get their names retired when the World Meteorological Organisation has their annual meet in April. Countries affected by major storms will lobby for the retirement of the name from the annual naming lists, and when the storm is damaging enough, like those three, there will be mass agreement on the retirement, the name will never again be used in that basin, and replacement names will be suggested. But where do those names come from?
Storms are named to more easily communicate information about them, because we can track them, unlike several other natural disasters like earthquakes, they can be named in order, with an A name being the first of a given season and so on. In 1979, for the Atlantic a new system was drawn up (the East Pacific runs on its own naming list, as does the rest of the world, as someone whose cultural familiarity is with these names, I focus mainly on the Atlantic, with a cursory glance at the East Pacific and sometimes other basins). After 26 years of naming storms solely after women (and mostly old-timey women’s names like Hattie, Flora and Betsy for that matter), the WMO added male names into the mix. They drew up six lists, with alternating male and female names for each letter. So year 1 started with Ana, Bob, Claudette, David and so on. Year 2 started with Allen, Bonnie, Charley and Danielle. Year 7 uses List 1 again, minus the names that got retired, like David in 1979. Those six lists of names, used from 1979 to 1984, contain what I will henceforth term ‘original names’, meaning that for those that have in the four decades since, escaped retirement by not being notable storms, are still available for use. The opposite is ‘replacement names’, names drafted up to replace those names once a storm is significant. They can obviously still be retired, the name replacing the deadly Hurricane Allen from 1980 was Andrew, which itself got retired in 1992.
This can create a little game with the names, which list will retire all its names first? The list way ahead on that front is List 3, which, despite not retiring any names until 1999, had the 2005 season in its favour, where it retired the W name (Wilma), ostensibly the hardest name to even reach (no other season has even reached the W name, or V for that matter), much less retire. Rita and Stan from that list are also gone, Katrina obviously, along with Dennis, Lenny and Floyd went in 1999. Irene fell in 2011, and Harvey and Maria will be originals most likely going this time around, along with Irma, the first replacement name that that list will retire.
Of course, it may be just as hard to retire the early names as it is the later ones. Early season storms are generally weak and don’t affect much, while the height of the Atlantic season and the most likely destructive hurricanes come around mid-August to mid-October, where an average list is likely to be on F through to perhaps M. The only A names to have been retired, Allen, Andrew, Alicia and Allison (those four names coming from two of the six lists) all show a pattern, either a slow season with no early storms that eventually produces a monster, but then not much else to retire, or, in the case of Allison, an extremely wet and unfortunately placed tropical storm or weak hurricane that ends up creating an impact despite its low wind speeds. This means that nearly every season starts with a weak and unimpactful Tropical Storm Ana/Alberto/Andrea/Arthur, sometimes followed with a weak Bonnie/Bret/Bertha, then Claudette/Cindy/Chris. Not saying I’m tired of those names, but it’s been 10 years since an A-D name has been retired, we will see those names every season (unlike the N-T names, which only appear every 2 or 3 seasons) and I like my variety.
But the crux of my article, at least, the point I was trying to get to, is that there is one letter that appears to be more ‘in trouble’ than the others, when it comes to having replacement names. That is the letter that I am personally attached to, the letter ‘I’. It currently has the record for letter with most retirements, with ten, and it will inch ahead again this year for sure. Previously, ‘F’ held it, including the older lists, but since the modern lists took over, and the active season began, the 9th storm in the season has been significantly more likely to be destructive than any of its counterparts. No letter has managed to retire all of its original names, but ‘I’ has come the closest (though, again, ‘F’ runs it close, it’s also on 5/6 but for reasons I’ll explain later, ‘I’ is ahead on that score).
‘I’ started with Isabel, Ivan, Irene, Isaac, Iris and Isidore. It actually had quite a fortunate start, but the 80s were a quiet decade for hurricanes and few retirements happened, many seasons didn’t even get to the ‘I’ storm (of course, part of that is that tracking systems have improved in recent decades and ‘fish spinner’ storms that may have been missed before are picked up more frequently now). But everything changed in 2001. Iris was the first name to go, hitting Belize hard. In 2002, Isidore followed, wreaking havoc around the Gulf. 2003 and 2004 saw the infamous Hurricanes Isabel (in North Carolina) and Ivan (across the Caribbean and the South US). From nothing, ‘I’ became the first letter to have four straight retirements in a row. Indeed, given the activity of the 2005 season, it was a minor miracle that Irene didn’t extend that streak then, had there been two less storms in the early part of the season, it could have been the name for what became Katrina.
It didn’t stop there, it became more usual than unusual for the I storm to be destructive. Though 2006 was quiet and saved Isaac, 2008 saw Ike (and here you can start to see the problem, ‘I’ names are generally less common than most of the other letters often in the retirement line, so they start to get obscure), Isidore’s replacement, become a destructive hurricane in itself. Igor in 2010 consigned another replacement name to the scrap heap. Irene in 2011 made sure the 5th original name got retired, leaving only Isaac, and he, as I said at the beginning of this article, probably came within a hair’s breadth of retirement for what he did to Texas, and probably would have gone had Sandy not wiped out all memory of him for the general public not long after. I am very nervous for 2018, not just for him, but also for Florence, the only remaining original F name, that by coincidence, happens to be on the same list. Despite some of my sentiments above, I don’t want any letter to retire ALL of its original names, because, as I said, it’s now a game, how far can the last original names go?
The I retirements continued, in 2013, a weak season, but one I followed with interest as my first full season. Ingrid, Iris’ replacement, got retired, but this is the most egregious of the I retirements in my opinion, as though it was harsh on Mexico, more damage was done there by Hurricane Manuel of the Pacific, and it was only that both storms hit at the same time that they seemed worse together. And then we come to 2017 and Irma, Irene’s replacement, which, after this year and its inevitable striking from the lists, will leave 4 of the ‘I’s not only on their second name, but their third. It now looks like Ida, Ian, Irma, Isaac, Imelda and Isaias. Isaias. With the even more bizarre list of Irwin, Ileana, Ivo, Iselle, Ignacio and Ivette unavailable because of their use in the East Pacific, I sense that there might be a struggle with suggesting viable (by which I mean easily pronouncable and recognisable) replacement names for the I storms if they continue to get retired at this rate. In fact, I suspect that part of the reason my own name didn’t get retired in 2012 is that having to find another male I name that fit those criteria was not ideal when the storm in question only skirted the line. The common lists that I’ve looked up have maybe a couple of names that haven’t been used, aren’t a close variation of a name already retired, or aren’t politically insensitive to have as a destructive hurricane (like Israel or Islam, the former of which got removed from the East Pacific naming list a while back. Isis recently joined it from the girls’ side). So in the future, it’s likely that I storms will go more and more obscure (prepare for Hurricane Ichabod around 2030, although if he survives two more rounds, that should be Isaac, so please no) unless society itself makes others more popular. It’s bad luck for I, is all I’m saying, and I celebrate each season that doesn’t have a destructive I storm, my name or not. More than I do other letters, because I’m weird and tribal about the letter my name starts with.