How hurricanes get their names

PHOTO: This image obtained from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows Hurricane Irma, Sept. 2, 2017, at 1130 UTC. PlayAFP/Getty Images
WATCH How do hurricanes get their names?

As Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm, begins battering the Caribbean, you may wonder how hurricanes get their names.

Storm naming is actually maintained by an international group of meteorologists known as the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

PHOTO: This image obtained from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows Hurricane Irma, Sept. 2, 2017, at 1130 UTC. AFP/Getty Images
This image obtained from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows Hurricane Irma, Sept. 2, 2017, at 1130 UTC.

The organization's experts meet annually to discuss hurricanes. They also decide when to retire the names of the costliest and deadliest hurricanes, such as Katrina, Rita and Matthew.

A list of the retired names dating back to 1954 is listed here.

And if more than 21 storms strike in a season, names are pulled from the Greek alphabet

PHOTO: Homes knocked off their foundations following the storm surge produced by Hurricane Sandy, Nov. 3, 2012, Brick Beach, N.J. Julie Dermansky/Corbis via Getty Images
Homes knocked off their foundations following the storm surge produced by Hurricane Sandy, Nov. 3, 2012, Brick Beach, N.J.

Retiring names "is based on the strength and how destructive the storms were," Susan Buchanan, a spokeswoman at the National Weather Service, a party to the WMO, told ABC News. "No one will forget Katrina or Sandy because they associate those names with a particular storm."

But it's too early to know if Harvey will join these historic hurricanes.

"I don't want to speculate whether the WMO will retire Harvey," she said.

She emphasized that the current naming system minimizes the difficulty in tracking multiple storms at once.

"They named storms to avoid confusion and it's easier to put in the history books," Buchanan explained.

Hundreds of years ago, hurricanes were named after saints, according to NOAA. The hurricane that struck Puerto Rico in 1825 was named Santa Ana, for example.

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By the end of the 19th century, an Australian forecaster named Clement Wragge pioneered the practice of naming storms after the Greek alphabet. He then began applying women's names to tropical storms before the end of the 19th century, according to the NOAA website.

NOAA said a group of American soldiers in 1944 named a series of tropical storms in Saipan after their wives.

A year later, according to NOAA, the armed services adopted the practice of naming typhoons in the western Pacific after women.

By 1953, the military scrapped its storm-naming method, which worked off a phonetic alphabet, and started attributing female names to storms, according to NOAA.

Male names have only been included on the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) storm lists since 1979.

Today, meteorologists alternate male and female names for storms and rotate them out by using six lists that run through the year 2022.

"The lists are reused unless one [storm name] is retired and is substituted with a new name that is selected by the WMO," Buchanan said.

PHOTO: Remnants of a trailer park following Hurricane Andrew, Aug. 25, 1992.Steve Starr/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Remnants of a trailer park following Hurricane Andrew, Aug. 25, 1992.

The process, however, has been controversial. In 2014 a study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) contended that female-named hurricanes led to more destruction.

Critics, including scientists from the same agency, debunked the suggestion that storms do more damage simply because they're masculine or feminine.

Buchanan agrees.

"There's no scientific correlation between the size and strength of storms and whether they have male or female names," she said.