‘Female’ Hurricanes Kill More People

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

Just like women, hurricanes are unpredictable. At least that’s what meteorologists before the 1970s thought, so that is why they gave all hurricanes feminine names. (Yes, this is a true story.) Then, society decided that gender stereotypes weren’t funny, and meteorologists — not wanting to be labeled “sexist” — implemented the current system in which hurricanes alternate between male and female names. 

Now, meteorologists have an entirely new problem on their hands: Female hurricanes kill more people.

The authors of a new PNAS study asked volunteers to rate the masculinity or femininity of the names of 94 real hurricanes that struck the U.S. from 1950 to 2012. Two outliers, hurricanes Katrina and Audrey (incidentally, both “female” hurricanes), were removed from the analysis because their death tolls were far greater than all the others (1833 and 416 deaths, respectively). Thus, the authors whittled the analysis to 92 hurricanes.

They found that the more feminine a hurricane’s name, the higher its estimated death toll. The results held even after considering other factors, such as the total damage caused by the hurricane.

The researchers then asked volunteers to predict the intensity of hurricanes in 2014. They selected names from the official list of 2014 Atlantic hurricanes. (Note that none of them have actually occurred yet, since hurricane season began on June 1.) Just as they predicted, people rated hurricanes with male names as more intense than those with female names. (The notable exception was “Bertha,” which understandably received high marks.) Other experiments showed that volunteers were likelier to evacuate if the hurricane had a male name.

What explains these results? Because men are widely perceived as stronger and more dangerous than women, the authors believe that this may subconsciously affect how people respond to hurricanes. A “female” hurricane may sound less threatening, and as a result, people do not take proper precautions. The researchers suggest that policymakers come up with a new naming system and that meteorologists stop calling hurricanes “he” or “she”.

Perhaps we should name hurricanes after mass murderers, instead? “Hurricane Hitler” would certainly attract a lot of attention.

Source: Kiju Jung, Sharon Shavitt, Madhu Viswanathan, and Joseph M. Hilbe. “Female hurricanes are deadlier than male hurricanes.” PNAS. Published online before print: 2-June-2014. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1402786111.