How Are Hurricanes Named? Titles Come From These Long Lists

When a storm starts brewing in the tropical waters of the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans, it's called a tropical depression, as long as its winds are at or below 38 miles per hour. But once the speeds reach 39 mph or higher, it becomes a tropical storm. And once a disturbance is officially classified as a tropical storm, it gets an official name.

It isn't until the storm's sustained wind speeds reach a minimum of 74 miles per hour that it earns the title of hurricane as well, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

 Katia, Irma and Jose
Hurricanes Katia, Irma and Jose brewing in the Gulf and Atlantic in 2017. NOAA

The name a storm is given comes from a rotating list of names kept by the World Meteorological Organization. Each tropical cyclone basin, like the East North Pacific or the group of areas that make up the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the North Atlantic basin has groups of names that rotate through the years.

The storms that come close to the United States are generally chosen from name lists designated for the East North Pacific or the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico and the North Atlantic. Each of those basins have six lists that rotate through the years. THis means the list used in 2018 to name storms will be used again in 2024, six years after it was last used.

It wasn't until 1953 that the Atlantic tropical storms were named. During that time, the National Hurricane Center maintained the list of names, a responsibility that later shifted to the WMO. The names were used to eliminate confusion about different storms happening at any given time, and to help make them easier to remember, according to NOAA.

The first list that was established of names was made up of only female names, but in 1979, male names were included on the list as well. The male and female names alternate and are arranged in alphabetical order, according to the WMO.

In the event that a storm is incredibly costly or deadly, its name can be retired, and removed from the list of names used. This was the case with Hurricanes Katrina, Maria and Harvey. When a name is retired from the list, another is chosen to replace it so that the list never gets any shorter than 21 names.

hurricane names august 9
The list of hurricane names for the 2018 season in the Atlantic basin. The names crossed off in the photo were already used when NOAA created the graphic August 9, since then Ernesto was also used. NOAA