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  • Astrid Kitchen

Preparing for Disaster - Why do we name our storms?

Astrid Kitchen

Research Assistant @ OMTM

Dear World,

Why do we give human names to wind and rain? Where do they come from and why do female storms cause more deaths?

First with Kiara, and then Dennis bowling about the country wreaking havoc, the question ‘why do we name them?’ popped up one too many times. When it surfaced at my running club, in a moment when I could have really done with an answer, I thought it time to do some digging on this particularly strange human ritual.

Apparently, the story begins in Australia in the late 1800s with an embittered meteorologist called Clement Wragge. Mr. Wragge began allocating the names of Australian politicians to cyclones as revenge when they did not offer him a promotion he was gunning for.

In the 1940s, American pilots jumped on the storm naming bandwagon because they were easier to hear over radio transmission, rather than Morse code. By the 50s, this had become standard procedure. It was initially agreed to just use women’s names, again for clarity purposes (a suspiciously vague reason) until 1978, when men’s names were also incorporated.

In 2015, the UK followed suit with its ‘Name Our Storms’ campaign which hoped to spread awareness about severe weather. It proved successful in accessing harder to reach groups, particularly young people.

More recently, the Netherlands, France, Spain, and Portugal have opted in on the initiative, which might explain the origin story behind a storm Miguel, if one were to end up blustering about the UK.

Meteorological associations welcome name suggestions from members of the public, via social media or email. The list is set in advance which means the next round of devastation in 2020 will be christened Ellen, Francis, Gerda and last but not least, Hugh.

In 2014, a <a href="">Princeton University study</a> demonstrated that female-named storms were taken less seriously and perceived as less threatening, resulting in lax preparations. They predicted this results in them bringing about 3x the number of deaths than 'male' storms.

Humans who have existed before us clearly saw value in anthropomorphising nature by bringing it into the tangible realm of human vs human relationships, so we can better appreciate its force. But, this tampering brought with it the baggage of bias, so that we might regard a storm as mild when it is ‘female’ or ‘foreign’ for having a culturally different name. This serves as a useful reminder of the pervasiveness of bias and prejudice, which manages to seep into every aspect of human existence.

And with this new knowledge, Ellen - the dates in the diary; we look forward to meeting you!


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