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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

The names given to natural disasters tell us stories we know little about

Hurricanes have always had seemingly trivial names to suggest they aren't that severe, but political correctness and gender equality have since crept into the equation

The Atlantic’s season for such damaging natural phenomena does not officially end until November 30. Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters
The Atlantic’s season for such damaging natural phenomena does not officially end until November 30. Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters

Gazing at his damaged home after Hurricane Maria struck his Caribbean island, Dominican prime minister Roosevelt Skerrit is unlikely to have been wondering why tropical storms are given such cosy names.

Still, less would he have been bursting to discuss the merits of a study, published in the scholarly setting of the journal of the US National Academy of Science, on a gender issue arising from the nomenclature of such cruel sources of death and devastation.

Difficult as this may be to swallow, the researchers – from the University of Illinois – found that choosing female names causes significantly more deaths because they “lead to lower perceived risk and consequently, less preparedness”.

Academics dislike being challenged. But their conclusion would surprise anyone who followed, from whatever distance, the progress of Maria as it caused chaos in Dominica and the French overseas territories of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Did anyone truly doubt for a second that while the threat to this beleaguered part of the Caribbean might bear a woman’s name, it carried a destructive punch?

The practice of naming hurricanes is occasionally seen as a tabloid device to meet a supposed public need to reduce serious issues to childlike simplicity. I cannot deny feeling slight irritation last year when an "atypical, poorly organised tropical storm", as it has since been described, battered the US states of Florida, North Carolina and Georgia. It was called Colin.

But we must always be prepared to accept that our filing cabinets have room for a dossier marked “not as daft as it sounds”. Calling hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria turns out to be less silly after all.

Firstly, it is not just another new-fangled fad. There is nothing especially new about naming severe weather systems. The meteorologists of the 19th century may have turned to the names of Christian saints, but they were names all the same.

Even the more formal use to which we are now accustomed dates from more than 60 years ago, when Alice became the first tropical cyclone in the the Atlantic to receive a female name instead of one based on a phonetic alphabet developed for military use during the Second World War.

A list of 23 names was initially drawn up, but the system evolved in complex fashion as authorities sought to eliminate confusion and repetition.

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Hints of political correctness and gender equality crept into official thinking by the late 1970s, when the first male name was introduced (Bob, for a 1979 hurricane recorded as relatively minor, though six American states were hit and one person died) and French and Spanish names were added to reflect different cultural traditions in affected countries.

And the rationale for using names at all?

The National Hurricane Centre, a branch of the US National Weather Service, says short, distinctive names have been shown to be a communications tool “quicker and less subject to error than the older, more cumbersome latitude-longitude identification methods”.

This is especially important, it argues, in exchanging detailed storm information with hundreds of widely scattered meteorological stations, coastal bases and ships, while also greatly reducing confusion when two or more tropical storms occur at the same time.

That seems an entirely reasonable justification. But stand by for some inevitable mischief-making.

Green campaigners are calling for devastating storms to be given the names of political figures who deny or minimise global warming and its effects.

Since the Atlantic’s season for such damaging natural phenomena does not officially end until November 30, there may be plenty of time for Hurricane Trump to tear a devastating path through the Caribbean and southern United States.

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