Geek Trivia: Can't place that name

When did the first modern "nameless" hurricane occur, and where did it form?

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Continuing with last week's hurricane season theme, Geek Trivia poses this question: Why name a hurricane? No, this isn't an existential debate or a rhetorical exercise, and the question does have an answer. In fact, the answer is simplicity itself: Naming hurricanes makes them easier to catalog and track.

As almost any resident of the Atlantic basin's coastal areas can tell you, multiple hurricanes can form in one region at the same time, and these storms remain in constant motion. That's why American meteorologists abandoned "positional" hurricane tracking—as in "the tropical cyclone presently located 75 miles North-Northeast of Kingston, Jamaica"—in 1950.

For two years, the United States used the international phonetic alphabet familiar to many military personnel—Able, Baker, Charlie, and so on. But it gave up that practice in 1953 for the use of proper names—proper female names, to be specific, a gender-centric practice that continued until 1979. Since 1979, U.S. meteorologists have alternately used male and female proper names to name the Atlantic and Northeast Pacific basins' hurricanes.

And yes, the phrase "Atlantic and Northeast Pacific basins" is a critical distinction. There are seven major basins where tropical cyclones (the class of storms to which hurricanes belong) can form, and meteorologists in most of these areas use differing naming conventions for these storms.

Moreover, the term hurricane is only applicable in the North Atlantic and Northeast Pacific oceans. The very same type of storm would be a typhoon in the Northwest Pacific Ocean, a severe tropical cyclone in the Southwest Pacific Ocean, a severe cyclonic storm in the North Indian Ocean, and simply a tropical cyclone in the Southwest Indian Ocean.

If science can't agree on the clinical term for the type of storm, it should come as little surprise that typhoons don't follow the same naming conventions as hurricanes. (However, both words do have comparable mythological roots: typhoon from Typhon, a terrifying monster of Greek mythology, and hurricane from Hurakan, a Mayan god of wind and storms.)

Yet for all the rules and regulations surrounding the naming of tropical cyclones, a loophole or two remains. Earlier this year, the first modern "nameless" hurricane came into being when a high-level tropical cyclone formed in a region that had no established naming convention for such a storm.


When did the first modern "nameless" hurricane—specifically, a tropical cyclone that develops in a region with no established naming convention for storms—occur, and where did it form?

On March 28, 2004, a massive storm made landfall near Torres, Brazil, along the country's South Atlantic coast, and later analysis confirmed meteorologists' suspicions that this storm was in fact a Category 1 hurricane.

In more than four decades of satellite weather tracking, no hurricane-level storm has ever formed in the South Atlantic. As such, no naming convention for Southern Atlantic hurricanes exists. Indeed, no hurricane-tracking or warning systems are even in place for this region.

When the "nameless" hurricane made landfall, scientists still weren't sure it had actually reached hurricane strength because none of the appropriate ground-based meteorological instruments were in place to make that immediate determination. Even after the storm passed, no precise data existed to determine when the storm reached hurricane strength.

In the aftermath of the storm, Brazilians named it Hurricane Catarina, as the storm made landfall in the local state of Santa Catarina. (The World Meteorological Organization, which has naming rules for every oceanic region except the South Atlantic, does not formally recognize the name.) This ad hoc christening harkens back to the days before the modern practice of giving hurricanes proper names.

During the 1940s, U.S. military meteorologists often informally nicknamed hurricanes after their girlfriends and female relatives. Australian meteorologists have long practiced the tradition of informally nicknaming tropical cyclones—a tradition that includes the perhaps apocryphal tale of one snarky Aussie weatherman who named storms after politicians he disliked.

Even Brazil's Santa Catarina namesake is in good company, as the 1800s and early 1900s saw many Caribbean hurricanes named for the Catholic saints' days on which the storms made landfall. For example, locals called the hurricane that struck Puerto Rico on Sept. 13, 1876 Hurricane San Felipe.

When a hurricane struck the same island on the same day in 1928, locals simply called it Hurricane San Felipe The Second. Now there's some Geek Trivia that will blow you away.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble is from the Aug. 18 edition of Geek Trivia, "Olympic muddle winners," which discussed the world's largest single roof. TechRepublic member CodeCurmudgeon wanted to clear up a few definitions.

"I suspect the Munich stadium has the world's largest clear-span roof. Look at any major industrial plant, and you will find a far larger roof than on this stadium."

In strict total-covered-area terms, dear reader, you are correct, but the key term used in the article was "single roof." I, like many architects and the Guinness Book of World Records, would consider large factory spaces and convention halls to comprise several interconnected roofs.

So, while you're on the right track, clear span—which has more to do with the space beneath the roof remaining uninterrupted by support columns—is not exactly the term we were looking for.

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.