People drive a boat through a Shell gas station as they navigate a flooded neighborhood on Aug. 16, 2016 in Sorrento, Louisiana. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

USA - Hurricanes are changing with the climate. Our words about them may need to change, too.

Outdated names and definitions may be hindering public understanding of warnings about dangerous storms.

On Friday, Aug. 5, 2016, the National Hurricane Center identified an ill-defined area of low pressure drifting westward along Florida’s sweeping Big Bend, where the state’s panhandle arcs into its long-tailed peninsula. A tropical disturbance in August over the Gulf of Mexico typically garners the wary eye of hurricane forecasters and coastal residents alike, but by Sunday, Aug. 7, the disorganized disturbance was moving inland, adrift over the Deep South. Everyone knows tropical cyclones don’t form over land, or at least they shouldn’t.

In the coming days, the nameless, unclassified low-pressure system of tropical origins would blanket parishes of southern Louisiana in biblical rains, enough in the span of a few days to have filled Florida’s Lake Okeechobee — the largest freshwater lake in the Southeastern U.S. — four times over. The ensuing floods triggered the most expansive federal response to a disaster since Superstorm Sandy. And at a cost of over $12 billion, it was the most expensive disaster to strike Louisiana in over a decade.

It wasn’t a tropical storm. It wasn’t even a tropical depression. But it certainly felt like one.

Outdated names and thresholds

The lack of a name for this catastrophe became its own topic of discussion in the ensuing days, raising a key question: Could arbitrary definitions from yesteryear be hindering how we perceive and respond to the tropical threats of today?

Modern-day hurricane messaging rests on an aging foundation. Although scientists have fine-tuned their forecasts, dramatically slicing hurricane track errors in half since the days of Hurricane Andrew, and more recently enlisting social science teams to tailor-make forecast graphics, our language and terminology are miring communications in the past.

We can see the generation gap in conspicuous areas like the names we give to tropical storms and hurricanes. Once-popular names like Arlene, Beryl, Debby, and Wilfred still pepper the six rotating lists — but according to the Social Security Administration, the popularity of these names peaked in 1934, 1920, 1959, and 1917, respectively. Of the 126 names included on the original six Atlantic lists introduced in 1979, over half remain.

But personifying storms with names from generations past is a benign symptom compared to widely used definitions that carry over from bygone centuries. Take, for example, tropical storms — tropical cyclones whose maximum sustained winds reach 39 mph. It’s at this stage that storms attain a name.

You may wonder why the threshold was set at 39 mph instead of 40 mph, especially since the accuracy of instruments only allows forecasters to estimate tropical cyclone winds to the nearest 5 mph. That’s because the tropical storm threshold is derived from a primitive scale developed in 1805 by Royal Navy officer Francis Beaufort and expanded in 1926 to estimate wind speed from observed sea conditions. At Beaufort force 8 — gale conditions, signaling a strong wind or stiff breeze — ocean behavior suggests winds of at least 39 mph. By the 1950s, gale-force winds came to define the term “tropical storm.”

Although there’s nothing scientifically significant about 39 mph winds, the threshold has outsized societal implications. When forecasters christen a tropical storm with a name, special attention is given to it by the public and press. Financial triggers like higher-dollar named-storm deductibles kick in, leaving many homeowners to pay more out-of-pocket for damages before their insurance pays. Television stations replay the ubiquitous forecast cone and update viewers on the storm’s strength. What Sir Francis Beaufort advanced over 200 years ago for mariners has unknowingly seeped into the crevices of modern-day hurricane communications without many — including meteorologists — understanding how or why the arcane threshold is still used today.

Similarly, the term for entry-level tropical cyclones, “tropical depressions,” was conceived as a byproduct of jargon past. Though mostly obsolete today in U.S. meteorology, the word “depression” was common parlance among early 20th-century weather forecasters in describing a variety of low-pressure systems. By the early 1960s, the adjective “tropical” was added to distinguish warm-core depressions in the tropics from midlatitude or wintertime lows. The moniker stuck, despite its anachronous and often confusing connotation: Today, most folks think of depression as a physical or psychological condition rather than a meteorological phenomenon.

Adapting the message for a changing climate

The climate is changing and communicating with the public about extreme weather grows increasingly difficult if our language and definitions don’t change with it. Climate and weather are inextricably linked — when one changes, so does the other. Climate “normals,” like the average high or low temperature on a given date, are updated every 10 years (using 30-year rolling averages), but we tend to adjust our words more gradually.

A study published last summer by a who’s who of hurricane experts found tropical activity in the Atlantic, including landfalls, is starting earlier and earlier due to warming oceans, to the tune of five days per decade. Last March, the World Meteorological Organization began discussions on potentially shifting back the start date of the Atlantic hurricane season from June 1 to May 15 but demurred, pushing any decision to future years.

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