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Why do hurricanes have names?

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Names are reused every six years

Floods Hinder Recovery Efforts In Southeast Texas Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

By now, almost everyone knows what Harvey and Irma are, but why do hurricanes have names in the first place?

For a simple reason: it makes communication easier. In the past, people identified hurricanes based on latitude and longitude. But a bunch of numbers can be a mouthful and also get confusing when you’re trying to pass information to so many different sources. Names are far more memorable and distinctive, which makes them more convenient to use to get the word out quickly, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Names used to be given randomly, but in the mid-1900s meteorologists started an alphabetical system using only female names. The first storm of the season would have a female name starting with an “A,” the second would have a “B” name, and so on. In 1953, the international committee of the World Meteorological Organization gave up the alphabetical system and started maintaining a list of hurricane names. It wasn’t until 1979 that male names were added. (A few years ago, there was controversy over whether female-named hurricanes kill more people because people think they’re less dangerous, but that’s probably not the case.)

Today, the same sets of names are recycled every six years — and remaining ones for 2017 include Bret, Ophelia, and Philippe. The same names will come around again in 2024, with one exception: if a storm was really destructive, its name is taken off the list entirely. Retired names include Katrina, Sandy, Joaquin, and Irene.

It hasn’t been announced whether Harvey or Irma will be retired, but considering that Irma is already one of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic, the likelihood seems high.