According to the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML), the practice of naming storms started with an early 20th century Australian forecaster, who named them after political figures he particularly disliked. “By properly naming a hurricane,” AOML says, “the weatherman could publicly describe a politician as 'causing great distress' or 'wandering aimlessly about the Pacific.' "
The Wall Street Journal reports that way back in the 1940s, U. S. Army and Navy meteorologists named tropical storms after their wives and girlfriends. It does not specify whether those wives and girlfriends caused “great distress.”
Perhaps it was pressure from the feminist movement or perhaps it was just good sense, but the naming of storms eventually became a unisex exercise.
In 1978, the United Nations' World Meteorological Organization compiled pre-determined lists of names for tropical storms for each ocean basin of the world. Here in the Atlantic basin we have a list of 21 names for each year. The letters Q, U, X, Y and Z are not used because names beginning with those letters are rare. Names are carefully chosen so that they are easily pronounced and understood in the various languages within the path of the storm.
The names are recycled in six year sequences. The 2011 list was last used in 2005. That was the year that produced Katrina. When a storm is particularly destructive the name is retired in tribute to the victims and to avoid confusion in later years.
The 2005 Irene was a considerate storm. It stayed mainly in the ocean and caused no deaths. The 2011 Irene gives evidence of being angrier. Check back for further details of Irene’s progress.