Hurricanes are a form of tropical cyclones. They occur in the Atlantic Basin, which includes the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico and, east of the International Dateline, in the Pacific. Originally, forecasters used latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates to identify particular storms but it was cumbersome and not easily communicated. The practice of naming storms actually began in the West Indies. They named storms according to the Saint's Day that corresponded to the occurrence.
In 1950, the naming of hurricanes in the Atlantic Basin region began by using the International Phonetic Alphabet: Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog, Easy, Fox, etc. In 1953, the United States National Weather Service started using English, female names to replace the Phonetic alphabet. This custom did not sit well with women's groups so, in 1979, forecasters began alternating male and female names and incorporated French and Spanish names, as well.
In the 21st century, the naming of hurricanes is the responsibility of the World Meteorological Organization's (WMO) Regional Hurricane Committees. They select six rotating lists of potential names for the Atlantic Basin storms. After 6 years have passed, the lists of names are used over again. The storms that occur in the central Pacific are usually Hawaiian names, and are chosen from four annually revolving lists.
The standard naming systems use relatively common first names. The names on every list begin with the letter "A" and continue through the alphabet until the end of that year. (Names that begin with the letters "Q", "U" and "Z" are never used.)
Each year, no matter how many storms received a name in the previous year, the first new storm still begins with the letter "A" on the next list and the names will continue to be recycled, unless they are retired. Over 70 names have been retired since 1954 because they are associated with major catastrophic events, like Hurricane Katrina, in 2005. These names will never be used again but will be replaced by another name beginning with the same letter of the alphabet.
The WMO's lists of names are determined years in advance. What this means is that the names for the year 2001 that were not retired, will be used again in 2007. In the United States, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) works with the WMO lists to select the names for hurricanes each year.
The alphabetic naming of hurricanes provides an easy, organized point of reference for the major storms that occur each year. For instance, if a hurricane ends up with the name "Wilma," it becomes quite apparent that that year contained a high volume of storm activity.