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Hurricane Irma

This satellite image from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Atmospheric Administration shows Hurricane Irma obscuring most of Florida in 2017. Irma is one of four hurricane names the World Meteorological Organization is retiring. It will be replaced by Idalia.

Q: How do hurricanes get their names?

A: Names used to identify tropical stories and hurricanes aren’t arbitrary. They’re named by the World Meteorological Organization using a list of 21 names in alphabetical order that aren’t repeated for six years.

The United States began officially naming hurricanes in the Atlantic in 1953 using a list compiled by the National Hurricane Center before the WMO became the regulator.

There are six lists used in rotation so one list is only used every six years — this can help avoid confusion so the same name isn’t used in consecutive years. The list for 2017 won’t be used again until 2023, but even then the list will be slightly different.

After four devastating hurricanes struck in the Atlantic season last year, the names used to identify them — Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate — have been decommissioned by the organization. The WMO retires names associated with hurricanes that leave high cost of value or life.

“The only time that there is a change in the list is if a storm is so deadly or costly that the future use of its name on a different storm would be inappropriate for reasons of sensitivity,” the WMO said on its website.

Katrina was also taken off the list after a 2005 hurricane with that name caused catastrophic harm in Louisiana.

When names are retired, a new name starting with the same letter is used in its place. Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate have been replaced with Harold, Idalia, Margot and Nigel, the WMO announced last week.

Hurricanes on the U.S. Pacific coast use a different list of names, still following the alphabetical order.

There are only 21 names on each list because the letters Q, U, X, Y and Z have few names associated with them. If there are more than 21 hurricanes in one season, the Greek alphabet would be used to identify the storms.

— Shelley K. Mesch

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Shelley K. Mesch is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. She earned a degree in journalism from DePaul University.