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Naming Storms: Why The Female Hurricane Is Deadlier Than The Male

The Met Office has started naming storms in the UK for the first time.

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For the first time, a storm about to hit the British Isles has been given a name.

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Storm Abigail will hit the northern shores of Scotland this evening, according to the Met Office.

AMBER severe weather warning has been issued as #StormAbigail could bring gusts of up to 90mph #WeatherAware

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It's expected to bring winds of 70mph and gusts of up to 90mph.

Met Office / Via metoffice.gov.uk

The Met Office's chief meteorologist, Eddy Carroll, warned that "this storm could have some medium impacts, such as disruption to transport".

Abigail has been named as part of the Name Our Storms project, a pilot venture from the Met Office and its Irish counterpart, Met Éireann.

Met Office / Via metoffice.gov.uk

The list of storm names was chosen from suggestions given by email and on social media. After Abigail, the names chosen for winter 2015/26 are: Barney; Clodagh (Clo-da); Desmond; Eva; Frank; Gertrude; Henry; Imogen; Jake; Katie; Lawrence; Mary; Nigel; Orla; Phil; Rhonda; Steve; Tegan; Vernon; and Wendy.

The US National Hurricane Centre does not use names beginning with Q, U, X, Y, and Z, so for consistency the Met Office system uses the same convention.

Until the 1970s, the US naming system only gave hurricanes female names. That was for fairly sexist reasons.

"Bob 10 jul 1979 2128Z TN" by NOAA / Via class.noaa.gov Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - commons.wikimedia.org

According to The Encyclopaedia of Hurricanes, Typhoons and Cyclones, hurricanes were considered unpredictable and dangerous – like women. In the 1970s, pressure grew to change this system, and in July 1979, Hurricane Bob became the first male-named hurricane. It hit Louisiana and killed one person.

Since then, male and female names have alternated.

The move to alternating names has led to a surprising claim: That female-named storms may be much deadlier than male ones.

PNAS. Predicted fatality counts. MFI indicates masculinity-femininity index, and hurricanes with low MFI (vs. high MFI) are masculine-named (vs. feminine-named). Predicted counts of deaths were estimated separately for each value of MFI of hurricanes, hol / Via pnas.org

A study of 94 Atlantic hurricanes suggested that a severe storm with a relatively masculine name could be expected to cause 15.15 deaths on average. A similar storm with a relatively female name, though, would be expected to cause 41.84 deaths. This is despite the two deadliest storms, Katrina and Audrey, being removed from the study, because they would have skewed the data.

(Although it should be pointed out that this study sparked some controversy at the time. Here's a criticism of it, and here's the authors' response.)

That's because, the study said, people subconsciously assume female-named storms are gentler.

Hurricane Isabel seen from the International Space Station. By Image courtesy of Mike Trenchard, Earth Sciences & Image Analysis Laboratory , Johnson Space Center. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons / Via commons.wikimedia.org

The study also asked people to judge the power and risk of a storm after having seen a picture, read a short briefing on it, and been given its name. Female-named hurricanes were deemed less intense and less risky than male-named ones, and people were less likely to say they would evacuate their homes if they were threatened by a female-named storm.

The Met Office recently lost its contract to do the BBC's weather forecast.

Tom Chivers is a science writer for BuzzFeed and is based in London.

Contact Tom Chivers at tom.chivers@buzzfeed.com.

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