An infrared satellite view of Hurricane Patricia near peak intensity on October 23, 2015. Image credit: NASA/NOAA
Hurricane season—June 1 to November 30 this year—isn’t exactly the quietest time of the year. A few times each summer, the routinely sunny and warm days along the coast turn dark as a powerful storm rolls in from the sea. Some of those tropical cyclones turn out to be so uniquely tragic that meteorologists retire the name they assigned the storm.
And this is what just happened to three 2015 storms and hurricanes, Patricia, Erika, and Joaquin. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the authority in charge of maintaining the lists of names used for hurricanes, recently announced that in light of the death and damage caused by these storms last year, their names are now dropped from the rotating list and will not be used again for future hurricanes. The names will be replaced with Pamela, Elsa, and Julian, respectively, when the 2015 lists are reused in 2021.
Hurricane Patricia became the strongest tropical cyclone ever measured in terms of wind speed when it formed off the western coast of Mexico in October 2015. The hurricane achieved a mind-blowing maximum wind speed of 215 mph at its strongest, eclipsing the previous record of 195 mph measured in 2013’s Super Typhoon Haiyan as it neared landfall in the Philippines. Patricia came ashore in Mexico with winds of 150 mph, where it destroyed several small towns and killed several people.
Tropical Storm Erika didn’t develop particularly strong winds, but it generated prolific rainfall in August as it moved over the small Caribbean island of Dominica. Erika produced nearly a foot of rain on the mountainous island, causing flooding and landslides that killed at least 31 people. It doesn’t take a big storm to make a big mess.
Astronaut Scott Kelly photographed Hurricane Joaquin from the International Space Station on October 2, 2015. Image credit: Scott Kelly/NASA
Hurricane Joaquin exploded into the Atlantic’s strongest hurricane of 2015, defying forecasts and rapidly growing into a category 4 hurricane with winds of 155 mph as it sat almost stationary near the Bahamas. The hurricane laid waste to several small islands in the Bahamas, and the storm killed 33 people when a cargo ship named El Faro sank after getting caught in the most intense part of the hurricane.
All three of these tropical cyclones left behind so much death and destruction that the WMO decided that it would retire their names, as naming future storms Patricia, Erika, or Joaquin could cause undue grief and panic for survivors.
The WMO is the United Nations agency in charge of, among other things, maintaining the names used to classify tropical cyclones around the world. Each ocean basin has a slightly different naming policy—in the Atlantic and eastern Pacific, an alphabetical list is used that rotates once every six years. This year’s list of names in the Atlantic was last used in 2010, though with two new names: Ian and Tobias take the place of Igor and Tomas, both of which were retired after the 2010 hurricane season.
The Atlantic Ocean has already had one hurricane this year—Hurricane Alex formed in the middle of January—so when the next tropical storm or hurricane forms this summer, its name will be Bonnie, followed by Colin, Danielle, and so on through Walter. Names that begin with the letters Q, U, X, Y, and Z are omitted in the Atlantic because there aren’t enough common names that start with those letters to populate six lists and find potential replacements if one is retired.