Tropical Storm Don, a weakening system that’s now approaching the Windward Islands (Image via Weather Underground)

Meteorologists are currently tracking a pair of weather systems, a tropical storm named Don that appears to be on its way out, and an emerging system that will be dubbed Hilary should it continue to gain strength. While the names given to these storms might seem deliberate, they’re actually the product of a naming convention that dates back to 1953.

Not surprisingly, tropical storms Don and Hilary have attracted considerable attention, prompting some rather opportunistic and sarcastic tweets.

Oh, such hilarity. But the names Don and Hilary (yes, with one ‘l’) are a sheer coincidence, albeit a rather timely one.

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Decades ago, before the US National Weather Service came up with its naming protocol, tropical storms were tracked by year and the order in which they appeared. Unfortunately, this would create confusion when multiple storms appeared in the same ocean at the same time. All too often, broadcasts on the radio warned of incoming storms that were located hundreds of miles away.

In 1953, the United Nation’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO) remedied this problem by using short, easily remembered names. Only female names were used at first, but by 1979, both female and male names were used to identify storms in the Northern Pacific and the Atlantic basin.

Today, the WMO maintains a strict procedure for naming storms. The names, which are chosen by an international committee of the WMO, are specific to the Pacific or Atlantic oceans, and they run in alphabetical order from A to W (Atlantic) and A to Z (Pacific). For both Atlantic and Pacific storms, a list of male and female names are used on a six-year rotation. Should more than 21 tropical storms appear in one season, addition storms are named after the Greek alphabet (e.g. Alpha, Beta, Gamma, etc.).

The six-year Atlantic naming schedule. (Image: NOAA)
The six-year Pacific naming schedule. (Image: NOAA)

Tropical storm Don was the fourth named Atlantic storm of 2017, the prior three being Arlene, Bret, and Cindy. Following Don we can expect Emily, Franklin, and Gert. In the Pacific, we’ve already had tropical storm Greg, and the next one will be Hilary (this system, currently known as Tropical Depression Eight-E, hasn’t yet graduated to tropical storm status). Because these names are created well in advance, we know, for example, that the eighth tropical storm to appear in the Atlantic basin in 2022 will be named Hermine.

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Sometimes, a tropical storm or hurricane will be so deadly that the name will be retired for all time. Recent examples include Matthew, Erika, and Sandy. When that happens, a new name is added to the six-year rotation.

So who knows, perhaps someday a hurricane Don or Hilary will wreak havoc in the US, and we’ll never have to suffer through a storm with that name ever again.

[NOAA 1, 2, 3]