Which storm sounds scarier: Hurricane Arthur or Hurricane Dolly?
If you picked Arthur, you may be in trouble. Hurricanes with feminine names are likely to kill significantly more people than hurricanes with masculine names, according to a new study of more than six decades of U.S. storms.
University of Illinois researchers tracked the death tolls for every hurricane that touched down on U.S. soil between 1950 and 2012 (they left out 1957’s Audrey and 2005’s Katrina, because those storms were much deadlier than usual). They found that the more feminine the storm’s name, the higher its death toll. A lot higher, too: Their analysis suggests that changing a hurricane’s name from Charley to Eloise could nearly triple the storm’s fatalities. This effect held for storms before 1979, which were only given female names.
That’s because people perceive hurricanes’ names like they do people’s names: in the context of gender-based expectations. The more feminine a storm name sounds, the less severe the public thinks the storm will be. (For this study, separate participants rated the femininity or masculinity of names without knowing they were for storms.) Indeed, when researchers asked people to imagine being in the path of hurricanes Alexandra, Christina, or Victoria, they rated the storm as less powerful and risky than those who were told to imagine hurricanes Alexander, Christopher, or Victor.
“In judging the intensity of a storm, people appear to be applying their beliefs about how men and women behave,” explains Sharon Shavitt, who coauthored the study. “This makes a female-named hurricane, especially one with a very feminine name such as Belle or Cindy, seem gentler and less violent.”
This means that people take fewer precautions as these hurricanes approach, which leaves them more vulnerable once they hit. “People imagining a ‘female’ hurricane were not as willing to seek shelter,” Shavitt said.
But hurricane names, feminine or masculine, are completely arbitrary and have nothing to do with severity. The National Hurricane Center rotates six alphabetical lists of names every year, which are chosen by the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva through an international voting committee. When storms are especially devastating, like Katrina, their names are retired from use.
The names of the first few hurricanes of the 2014 season, which officially began this past weekend, will be Arthur, Bertha, Cristobal, and Dolly. Don’t discount Dolly.
This story has been updated.