When you ask a citizen of a coastal area in Florida or Louisiana what they fear the most, hurricanes are likely to get top billing. These tropical cyclones can range anywhere from sixty to well over 2500 miles in diameter, wreaking havoc at sea and bringing ruin to coastal areas through a combination of wind and flooding that can reach up to 25 miles inland.
Originally, cyclones went unnamed. It wasn’t until 1950 that the practice of naming them started (at first using the military phonetic alphabet: Able, Baker, Charlie, and so on), with the current trend beginning in 1952. Up until 1979 only feminine names were used. Past that date, storms are named according to a pre-determined list with alternating masculine and feminine names.
What’s In a Name?
The naming scheme is completely arbitrary and there is no practical difference between cyclones assigned feminine or masculine names. However, a 2014 study performed by a research team from the University of Illinois discovered that hurricanes with feminine names tended to be more deadly than those with masculine ones. The reasons are surprising and have little to do with physics or meteorology and all with psychology.
The name assigned to a particular cyclone has no relation to its severity, but that doesn’t mean it has no impact on its perception. Indeed, the researchers discovered that people tended to assign conventional gender traits to cyclones depending on the name: Cyclones with masculine names were seen as more threatening and formidable than those with feminine names. In fact, the latter were routinely seen as less dangerous across the board and less likely to travel along paths where they can cause a lot of destruction, in spite of the fact that cyclones do not have a gender and refuse to conform to society’s expectations.
The conclusions of the study indicate that this perception may be a major factor in the higher death toll caused by cyclones assigned feminine names. The mechanism is simple: People reflexively assume that a hurricane is less threatening due to its name, rather than objective facts. As a result, they are less inclined to taking proper precautions or evacuating, leaving them vulnerable when it arrives. An analysis of the naming patterns and the death tolls in the past decades indicates that this naming convention may result in as much as a 1:3 disparity in casualties between cyclones with masculine and feminine names, despite no inherent differences between the two.
As such, this raises a number of fundamental questions regarding the current naming convention. The pervasive gender bias has a clear and measurable effect on the casualties inflicted by cyclones. In the face of an increasing incidence of hurricanes due to the effects of global warming on the climate, addressing this systemic problem may be one of the first steps in limiting the loss of life and property due to cyclones, currently estimated at over 200 dead per year, with many more wounded by nature’s violent wonders.