Hurricane Victor is likely to rampage across the land, spreading devastation in its wake. Hurricane Victoria, by contrast, will probably just ineffectually bat at obstacles in its path.

Such sexist assumptions mean that people are less likely to take hurricanes with female names as seriously than those with male names, according to new research. As a result, hurricanes called Cindy and Dolly often cause more deaths than those named Andrew or Charlie.

Academics at the University of Illinois and Arizona State University looked at the death tolls caused by hurricanes in the US between 1950 and 2012. They found that, among the 47 most destructive hurricanes, those with female names resulted in an average of 45 deaths. By contrast, the hurricanes with male names caused an average of 23 deaths.

The study excluded hurricanes Katrina (which killed at least 1,500 people in 2005) and Audrey (which resulted in more than 400 deaths in 1957), which were seen as so destructive that they would skew the data.

Conjecturing that the disparity was not simply because hell hath no fury like a female storm, the researchers invited more than 1,000 people to predict how destructive hypothetical hurricanes would be. They were then asked how they would prepare for each one.

Participants were far more likely to suggest seeking shelter from a storm if it had a male name than if it had a female name. The effect was particularly strong with names that are seen as very feminine, such as Cindy or Belle.

“The stereotypes that underlie these judgements are not subtle,” said Professor Sharon Shavitt, co-author of the study. “They may involve viewing women as warmer and less aggressive than men.”

The research did not involve any meteorologists or experts in disaster science. Gina Eosco, a risk-communication researcher at Cornell University in New York, pointed out that the name of a hurricane is only one factor determining how people respond. Previous evacuation experience, how safe they think their homes are, whether they have children and whether they have pets also affect their reactions.

But Kerry Emanuel, professor of atmospheric science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that perhaps meteorologists should consider giving hurricanes names such as Jack the Ripper and King Kong.

At the end of the 19th century, an Australian meteorologist began naming storms after real people. This did not catch on, however, until the 1940s. In 1953, the US National Weather Service started to use female names for storms. Since the late 1970s, male and female names have been alternated.

Each year, a new list of names is allocated, beginning at A, and working through the alphabet. Names are rotated on a six-year cycle. However, if a storm has a major impact, the country affected can request the “retirement” of that particular name.

Adi Bloom

Questions for debate and discussion

  1. What is a storm? Why are some storms dangerous?
  2. What are some precautions taken by people who live in areas prone to extreme weather?
  3. Should all storms be given male names, or should society change its attitude towards femininity? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each of these ideas?
  4. Why were hurricanes Katrina and Audrey left out of the study?

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