Politics of Hurricanes: Hitler, Israel, and the World's Geekiest Fight

There's more than meets the eye when it comes to the politics of hurricanes. Two names were so controversial in 2001 that they caused an uproar and were immediately removed from the list. Another infamous storm nearly caused a brawl among meteorologists.

While the storms themselves can be endlessly fascinating, the study of "human meteorology," so to speak, can be just as interesting.

What's in a name?

Politics of Hurricanes: Hitler, Israel, and the World's Geekiest Fight

Politics of Hurricanes: Hitler, Israel, and the World's Geekiest Fight

One wouldn't think that the politics of naming tropical storms and hurricanes would be as controversial as they are, but sensitivity is a strong force. Imagine living in New Orleans and hearing that another Hurricane Katrina was entering the Gulf of Mexico in 2011.

The National Hurricane Center (NHC), the official hurricane forecasting agency in the United States, doesn't come up with the names that are assigned to tropical cyclones. Those names are developed by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the United Nations agency responsible for weather-related tasks.

There are ten "basins," or regions of the world's oceans, that regularly see tropical activity, and each basin has its own list of names. Each country affected by cyclones around the world submits a list of names to the WMO for consideration for the official list, and the finalized lists consist of a blend of names from the countries in the respective basins.

The two basins that impact the United States (aside from Hawaii) are the Atlantic and eastern Pacific. The list of names for these two basins — the names for this year are shown above — recycle every 6 years. This year's list of names for the Atlantic and eastern Pacific were last used in 2008.

The Atlantic list of names, for instance, is mostly made up of English (Arthur), Spanish (Gonzalo), and French (Paulette). The names developed for the eastern Pacific are almost all English (Amanda) and Spanish (Fausto). Storms that form in the northern Indian Ocean are given names provided by countries such as Bangladesh (Giri), India (Akash), and Pakistan (Nilofar).

You can see the global list of names here.

Retirees

Politics of Hurricanes: Hitler, Israel, and the World's Geekiest Fight

When a storm is particularly bad and causes major damage or a large number of fatalities, the WMO permanently retires that system's name from the list for sensitivity. Most of the worst hurricanes in recent memory — Ivan, Katrina, Irene, Sandy — have been retired and replaced with another name of the same letter for future years.

This has resulted in some controversy.

For example, after Katrina was retired in 2005, they replaced the name with "Katia." When a Hurricane Katia formed in 2011, newscasters and bloggers alike kept referring to it as "Katrina" by accident, causing some confusion and consternation on the part of survivors.

The list of names in 2001 brought about two equally controversial names: Adolph and Israel.

Up until this past weekend's Hurricane Amanda became the eastern Pacific's strongest storm to form in the month of May, 2001's Hurricane Adolph held that distinction. The storm caused no damage and no loss of life, but the fact that the storm shared a first name with Hitler caused enough controversy to get the name retired at the end of the year.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the same list in 2001 that saw Adolph also contained the name Israel a few spots down. Since the name was A) on the same list as "Adolph" and B) was going to be associated with something that could cause death and destruction, it prompted some Jewish groups to lobby to have the name replaced. After some pressure by both those groups and the Jerusalem Post, the name was quickly removed from the list and replaced with Ivo.

On the Atlantic list of names for this year, three of the names that appeared on the list in 2008 were retired and their replacements appear on this year's list. Those storms from 2008 — Gustav, Ike, and Paloma — were replaced with Gonzalo, Isaias, and Paulette.

Gender-Neutral

Politics of Hurricanes: Hitler, Israel, and the World's Geekiest Fight

Even though tropical storms and hurricanes are given gender-specific names like Douglas or Marie, they are referred to with gender-neutral pronouns. When Hurricane Amanda strengthened on Sunday, it became a category 4, not "she." This is one of those overlooked quirks of hurricane names to which, outside of meteorologists and diehard weather enthusiasts, almost nobody pays attention.

Greek Life

What happens when we reach the end of the alphabet? There's protocol in place in the unlikely event that we reach "W" and exhaust the primary list of names. Once the official list of names for the Atlantic basin is exhausted, we switch over to the 24-letter Greek alphabet as a backup.

Politics of Hurricanes: Hitler, Israel, and the World's Geekiest Fight

We don't even have to wonder if it will ever happen. It did, only once, in 2005. That was the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record, with 31 tropical depressions and 28 storms (27 named + 1 unnamed) classified by the National Hurricane Center. Since there were 27 named storms and only 21 names on the primary list, the 6 storms that formed after Hurricane Wilma had to take on names from the Greek alphabet.

We made history on October 22, 2005 with the formation of Tropical Storm Alpha. Another storm formed a week later, becoming Hurricane Beta. This continued until Tropical Storm Zeta formed on December 29 — it didn't dissipate until January 6, tying with 1954's Hurricane Alice for the only storms in the Atlantic to form in one year and continue through New Year's into the next.

If you're wondering what happens if some ungodly pattern develops and we exhaust the Greek alphabet, there is no backup plan. According to a report on the World Meteorological Organization's website (caution: link opens a Microsoft Word file), not only is there no fallback for what to do if we exhaust the Greek alphabet, but there's also no plan in place in case we see a named storm from the Greek alphabet that needs to be retired.

The report is also interesting in that it states that the public, officials, and even some meteorologists hated that storms took on names from the Greek alphabet. The document listed several reasons:

[...] Feedback received from the general public, media and [emergency management] community about the practice of using the Greek Alphabet for naming tropical cyclones was generally unfavorable with comments such as "ludicrous," "idiotic" to "ridiculous."

The use of the Greek Alphabet as a backup list to the primary list of Atlantic tropical cyclone names has several disadvantages.

  • Generally unknown and confusing to the public.
  • Inconsistent with the standard naming convention for tropical cyclones.
  • If a Greek letter has to be retired, it cannot be replaced.
  • Defeats the purpose of using commonly known, short distinctive names understood by the public and media (Ex: The Greek Alphabet jumps from a "B" storm to a "G" storm then back to a "D" storm. If you expect an "F" storm instead you will jump to "Z").

The committee that wrote the report went on to suggest that a secondary list of names be developed in lieu of resorting to the Greek alphabet, but this suggestion was "not accepted" by the NHC.

An argument to end all arguments.

Politics of Hurricanes: Hitler, Israel, and the World's Geekiest Fight

Weather forecasting is ultimately a subjective affair. You can have all the model data and observations in the world, but the ultimate task of prognosticating comes down to the forecaster's experience and biases. Sometimes, this results in widely differing forecasts. This is the main reason why you can flip to four different local news stations and get four different 5-day predictions.

When Hurricane Ivan spiraled into the picture back in 2004, it was no exception. The storm was a classic example of a Cape Verde Hurricane — a storm that spins up off the western coast of Africa near the Cape Verde Islands and undergoes major intensification as it slowly makes its way towards the Caribbean.

The storm was one of many tropical systems to impact the southeastern United States in 2004, and it was arguably the worst. Ivan's wind and surge devastated parts of southern Alabama and the Florida Panhandle when it made landfall on September 16, and for the next two days it made its way inland with flooding rains and a particularly intense tornado outbreak around Washington D.C.

The remnants of Ivan — no longer tropical and just a weak low by September 18 — eventually moved out over the Atlantic Ocean off the Mid-Atlantic coast and started to move southward towards Florida. Ivan's remnants moved over Florida and back into the Gulf of Mexico where it started to organize into a tropical system again.

This put forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in a bind. The original Ivan lost tropical characteristics over Virginia and became "the remnants of Ivan." This same system moved back down into the Gulf of Mexico six days later and became a tropical depression again. Is the system still Ivan, or does it take on a new name?

Longtime NHC meteorologist Lixion Avila wrote the discussion when Ivan reformed on the evening of September 22.

After considerable and sometimes animated in-house discussion of the demise of Ivan...in the midst of a low-pressure and surface frontal system over the eastern United States...the National Hurricane Center has decided to call the tropical cyclone now over the Gulf of Mexico Tropical Depression Ivan.

While debate will surely continue here and elsewhere...this decision was based primarily on the reasonable continuity observed in the analysis of the surface and low-level circulation.

Spaghetti models are great! Until they're not.

Politics of Hurricanes: Hitler, Israel, and the World's Geekiest Fight

To wrap things up, we'll look at the somewhat undignified history of the spaghetti model. A spaghetti model is a product that plots on a map the predicted track of a tropical cyclone taken from many weather models, sometimes two or three dozen different models appearing on the same chart. The end result is a map with a bunch of spaghetti-like lines on it, hence the name.

Spaghetti models are a great tool to aid forecasters in deciding where they will ultimately predict a tropical cyclone to go, but as with most weather model products that require an understanding of meteorology to use properly, they can be incredible machines of deceit to amateurs and weather weenies who like to whip people up for clicks and ratings.

The National Hurricane Center used to make spaghetti models available to the public on their website back in the 1990s, but they had to remove them after both the public and even some broadcast meteorologists misused them and it served to undermine the experienced hurricane forecasters' official predictions.

Now, when you click the "forecast models" link on the NHC homepage, you're treated to this message:

The National Hurricane Center does not generate a graphic of the guidance models it uses to produce its forecasts. Such graphics have the potential to confuse users and to undermine the effectiveness of NHC official tropical cyclone forecasts and warnings.

The proliferation of weather model data on the internet, including spaghetti models, allows people to get a deeper understanding of how the forecast process works, but it can also be dangerous in uninformed or dishonest hands.

Actually, "but it can also be dangerous in uninformed or dishonest hands" is a good disclaimer for pretty much anything, really.

The Atlantic hurricane season begins on Sunday, so we're fair game for tropical cyclones from this weekend through November. Make sure you're prepared.

[Images: NASA / author / author / NOAA / author / author / Wikimedia Commons / Weatherbell]