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How to name a hurricane—first tip: Use 'short, distinctive' names

A scene in Manzanillo, Mexico during hurricane Patricia, on October 23, 2015.
Jonathan Levinson | AFP | Getty Images
A scene in Manzanillo, Mexico during hurricane Patricia, on October 23, 2015.

Hurricane Hermine was downgraded to a tropical storm Friday morning after making landfall in Florida. Yet if another should form, next on the list would be Hurricane Ian and in the hole is Hurricane Julia.

Meteorological officials decide on hurricane names years in advance, and reuse the same names very few years. CNBC looked into the history and practice of naming the storms that come across the Caribbean and crash into the nation's south and east coasts.

"Experience shows that the use of short, distinctive names in written as well as spoken communications is quicker and less subject to error than the older, move cumbersome latitude-longitude identification methods," the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wrote on its website.

A list of names has been established by the World Meteorological Organization, which is an agency of the United Nations. The WMO maintains a list of 21 names for each of six years, which are repeated. In other words, the same list is used every seven years. So within a decade, you could have two storms of the same name hit the country.

The names on each years' list alternate between male and female: That way, you'll never have two storms of the same gender back to back.

The only time the lists are changed is when a storm is so costly or deadly that the WMO finds it would be inappropriate to use the name again. We'll never have another Hurricane Katrina, for example, or another Hurricane Sandy.

The female factor

For decades hurricanes were named for the saint's day on which they occurred (like "San Felipe" in 1928), and the U.S. started giving hurricanes female names in 1953. It wasn't until 1979 that hurricanes in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico began receiving both male and female names.

"US hurricanes used to be given only female names, a practice that meteorologists of a different era considered appropriate due to such characteristics of hurricanes as unpredictability," wrote researchers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in 2014.

The researchers found that hurricanes with female names cause more deaths than male-named storms, suggesting that people don't prepare as much for the feminine storms.

The paper recommended that policymakers consider a new system for naming that wouldn't cause "human response to be influence by the mental representations associated with those categories."

Americans also apparently respond to the names of storms in the way they name their children. A 2012 analysisfound that after Katrina, there was an unusual increase in the number of children with K-names: Kimberly, Karen or Kevin. People avoided the name of the hurricane itself, but were more likely to pick similar-sounding names.

Naming conventions are also a source of controversy. A black congresswoman from Texas complained in 2003 that hurricanes were only given white names. "All racial groups should be represented," she said, according to Wired.

Additionally, the names chosen by the regional tropical cyclone authorities do tend to reflect the names in those regions. While the Atlantic Basic hurricanes in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and North Atlantic are named "Alberto," "Barry," and "Chantal," while Jakarta has "Anggrek" and "Bakung," and the Southwest Indian Ocean has "Abela" from Tanzania, "Bransby" from South Africa and "Cilida" from Madagascar.