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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 September 2005, 18:53 GMT 19:53 UK
A hurricane by any other name?
By Stephanie Holmes
BBC News website

Tropical cyclones - swirling masses of winds travelling at ferocious speeds - already have split identities.

Satellite image of Hurricane Ophelia
Sweet by name but not by nature - Hurricane Ophelia

They are known as typhoons in the western North Pacific region, hurricanes in the western hemisphere and cyclonic storms elsewhere.

But with an unusually large number of hurricanes so far this season, the forecasters' tradition of giving them names beginning with consecutive letters of the alphabet could prove inadequate for the first time ever.

Hurricane Rita is snapping on the heels of her sister, Katrina, and Wilma, the last on the list (after Stan, Tammy and Vince) may be lingering not too far behind.

What happens then?

"If we go beyond Wilma, we'll use the Greek alphabet," said Nanette Lomarda, head of the Tropical Cyclone division at the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

Hurricane Sigma?

The UN body is responsible for co-ordinating the naming of the severe weather systems.

Each particular cyclone has its identity and its own character, you get to know them
Nanette Lomarda, WMO

The WMO says they have never had to name a hurricane after a Greek letter before.

"But the possibility is high. On average in the North Atlantic, Gulf Coast and Caribbean we should have had six named storms, but we are already at number 17," Mrs Lomarda said.

So Hurricane Omicron and Hurricane Sigma remain a distant possibility. But Alpha and Beta are quite likely.

Naming hurricanes makes them as real and memorable as their effects.

Experts say easily recognisable names can even help mitigate a hurricane's potentially deadly effects as residents become aware of an approaching storm.

Christening storms

With up to 80 hurricanes gathering pace throughout the different cyclone seasons each year, forecasters need a way to differentiate between them.

Ariel view of the Bay of Saint Louis after Hurricane Katrina
The after-effects of hurricanes can be devastating

Hence each weather system is christened with a name as one might a baby.

"Each particular cyclone has its identity and its own character, you get to know them. Their behaviour is unique," Mrs Lomarda said.

The naming of hurricanes has a suitably stormy history.

Originally hurricanes were identified by their location, but their latitude and longitude did not exactly trip off the tongue.

A 19th Century Australian forecaster, Clement Wragge, is reported to have amused himself by naming them after loathed politicians - describing how they wandered aimlessly and displayed erratic behaviour.

Until the early part of the 20th Century, hurricanes in the Caribbean region were named after the saints' days on which they struck.

Staying alive

Individual names began to be attached in the 1950s, with US meteorologists using initially the phonetic alphabet and then female names.

In the 1970s feminist groups succeeded in changing the nomenclature to alternating male and female names.

Alicia - 1983
Betsy - 1965
Donna - 1960
Inez - 1966
Klaus - 1990
Mitch - 1998
Source: NOAA

Names reflect the geography of the storm's birthplace and the sensibilities of the region.

While Kirk, Patty and Sandy may skirt the US, Jal and Bulbul could strike the Bay of Bengal and Saomai or Bebinca might rise up from the South China Sea.

As they move, their names mutate, "There are no boundaries for these systems, as long as they are over water they are alive," Mrs Lomarda said.

Only when a storm has had a major impact is its name removed - or retired - from a revolving six-year list.

It is replaced with another of the same letter - for example Olga replaced Opal in 2001 - so that truly memorable hurricanes are never forgotten.

The WMO says that Katrina - whose wrath submerged the city of New Orleans - will definitely be recommended for retirement.

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