Jeff Masters Hurricane Blog

Abandoned hurricane names of the 1950s » Yale Climate Connections

It’s now been 70 years since the U.S. government began using people’s names (but only female-identified names until 1979) to refer to tropical storms and hurricanes. At this point, most U.S. residents are familiar with the National Hurricane Center’s practice of using lists that alternate between men’s and women’s names, starting with the letter A. Since 1979, there’s been a set of six lists that each reappear every six years, managed by the center and the World Meteorological Organization. The names of the most destructive Atlantic storms are retired, never again to be used.

It’s also well known among weather followers that there are only 21 names per list because names starting with the letters Q, U, X, Y, and Z are omitted. What’s less well known is that this wasn’t always the case.

During the middle and late 1950s, each year’s Atlantic list had names starting with all 26 letters of the alphabet. None of those seasons made it to the letter Q, though, so these names never got assigned to a tropical cyclone. Then, in 1960, the National Hurricane Center shifted to a rotating set of lists, each with 21 names. As put forth in a Mariner’s Weather Log article from March 1960, “Names beginning with the letters Q, U, X, Y, and Z are not included because of the scarcity of suitable names beginning with these letters.”

I didn’t know about these abandoned storm names until I happened upon them while going through the superb summaries on Wikipedia of each Atlantic season. Wikipedia’s tropical editor, Jasper Deng, has done exhaustive work over the years in putting together the site’s top-notch archival coverage of Atlantic storms, which has been tremendously useful in our efforts at Eye on the Storm. Thanks to Deng’s work, we have ready access to Atlantic storm names that you probably never knew existed. Below are the never-used names from this long-ago era that begin with Q, U, X, Y, and Z, along with links to the annual summaries for each year.

  • 1953 and 1954: Queen, Uma
  • 1955:  Queena, Ursa, Xenia, Yvonne, Zelda
  • 1956:  Quenby, Ursel, Xina, Yola, Zenda
  • 1957:  Quinta, Undine, Xmay, Yasmin, Zita
  • 1958:  Queeny, Udele, Xrae, Yurith, Zorna
  • 1959:  Quella, Udele, Xcel, Yasmin, Zasu

It’s a diverse set that includes names occasionally used today, such as Yvonne, Uma (a Sanskrit name, as in Thurman, the actress), Ursa (often used for characters in TV, movies, and video games), Yasmin (a Persian name, as in Vossoughian, the journalist), and Zelda (as in Fitzgerald and “The Legend of Zelda”). Other names probably emerged from obscure literary sources, and some may have been concocted by forecasters. Given the ubiquity of X-rays by the 1950s, Xrae must have had a high-tech ring to it. Many of the names above have made their way into registered trademarks, including Xcel Energy, a large Midwest utility.

The Social Security Administration’s list of the top 1,000 U.S. baby names from 1955 has only three names from the list above: Yvonne (#119), Queen (#706), and Zelda (#898). Interestingly, the top 1,000 baby names from 2020 also include three from the list above, with two repeats from 1955: Zelda (#559), Queen (#965), and Yasmin (#982).

Taking a fresh look at Q, U, X, Y, and Z

The profusion of named storms in recent years puts the decision to ignore five letters of the alphabet in a different light. We’ve now had three hurricane seasons (2005, 2020, and 2021) that each went through its entire list of 21 names. Two of those seasons — 2005 and 2020 — overflowed into a backup list of Greek-letter names. The next-busiest season on record was 2023, which came close to exhausting its list: There were 20 named storms, plus a belatedly recognized subtropical storm in January that was also name-worthy.

The argument that there aren’t enough names starting with Q, U, X, Y, and Z no longer holds water, especially as hurricane-prone nations adjoining the North Atlantic become ever more diverse and multicultural. A quick scan of the 2020 baby-names list finds these candidates:

  • Quinn, Quentin, Quincy, Quinton, Queen
  • Uriel, Uriah, Ulises
  • Xavier, Ximena, Xander, Xiomara, Xzavier
  • Yaretzi, Yusuf, Yara, Yosef, Yehuda, Yareli, Yousef, Yahir, Yamileth, Yasmin
  • Zoey, Zoe, Zachary, Zion, Zayden, Zara, Zuri, Zane, Zander, Zayn, Zayne, Zyaire, Zariah, Zaiden, Zachariah, Zaire, Zain, Zelda, Zahra, Zyaire, Zaylee, Zaid, Zeke, Zariyah, Zaniyah, Zayd, Zaria, Zora, Zahir, Zev, Zakia, Zoya, Zechariah, Zola, Zainab, Zoie, Zyair, Zendaya, Zhuri

Much of the value of the current naming system is that the first letter of each name serves as an instant progress report on how many named storms there’ve been that year. However, each time a season goes beyond the 21-name list into the new “overflow” list, adopted in 2021, it could disrupt the alphabetic ticker. That’s because names will be drawn in alphabetical order from the new overflow list across multiple years, so we might eventually jump from a V storm directly to a C or D storm.

Fleshing out the six rotating lists with a full alphabetic complement is certainly doable. And as the ever-warming Atlantic continues to spit out more and more named storms, using 26 rather than 21 names per list could go a long way toward reducing use of the overflow list. Incorporating some of the new names above could also help make the lists more contemporary — a worthy goal highlighted by Michael Lowry in a February post.

Read: Why are there so many Atlantic named storms? Five possible explanations.

Time for another I test

We’ll find out in 2024 whether the World Meteorological Organization decides to retire the name Idalia. This year’s Hurricane Idalia took an estimated 10 lives and caused around $2.5 billion in destruction, mainly across Florida.

It’s become a surprisingly common task to replace storm names beginning with I. That letter now leads the pack in Atlantic name retirements, with 14 to date starting with Ione (1955) and going through Ian (2022). Four I names were retired in the six seasons from 2017 to 2022 alone. One might expect that names beginning with A would be retired more often than any others, but names early in the alphabet are more likely to be used early in the season before conditions are most favorable for strengthening.

Not all of the Atlantic’s destructive tropical cyclones get their names retired, as discussed by Jeff Masters in an August post. As Jeff noted, eight storms that were even more damaging than Idalia (adjusted for inflation) did not have their names retired. It’s up to each nation affected by a devastating hurricane to lobby the World Meteorological Organization to have that storm’s name retired. Through 2022, the retiree list included 94 hurricanes and two tropical storms.

Commenters, what do you think? Should we bring Q, U, X, Y, and Z names back? And which names would you vote to add to the list?

Jeff Masters and Pearl Marvell contributed to this post. Many thanks to Jasper Deng for his long-time service as Wikipedia’s tropical-cyclone editor.

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