Hurricanes with feminine names are more deadly, study finds

People don't expect Victoria to be as threatening as Victor, scientists say

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 June, 2014, 9:44pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 June, 2014, 5:08am

Hurricanes with feminine names may kill three times as many victims because people do not perceive them as being as threatening as storms named after men, scientists say.

Hurricanes are named by a pre-determined, alternating order that has nothing to do with the strength of the approaching storm. Scientists developed the system in the 1970s to avoid the perception of gender bias.

But the result has been deadly, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that spanned more than six decades of Atlantic hurricanes.

Researchers at the University of Illinois analysed data on fatalities from every hurricane that made landfall in the United States from 1950-2012.

"A hurricane with a relatively masculine name is estimated to cause 15.15 deaths, whereas a hurricane with a relatively feminine name is estimated to cause 41.84 deaths," the study said.

"In other words, our model suggests that changing a severe hurricane's name from Charley to Eloise could nearly triple its death toll."

Scientists even disregarded two major storms in their analysis - Hurricane Katrina (2005) and Hurricane Audrey (1957) - because they took an outsized number of lives and could have skewed the results.

"In judging the intensity of a storm, people appear to be applying their beliefs about how men and women behave," said co-author Sharon Shavitt, a professor of marketing.

Researchers also found that when they asked people to imagine being in the path of a hurricane named Alexandra, Christina or Victoria, they rated it as less risky and intense than imagined storms named Alexander, Christopher or Victor.

Before the decision in the late 1970s to alternate male and female names, all hurricanes had feminine names, a practice born out of the belief that storms, like women, were unpredictable.

Researchers said their study suggested another change may be in order.

"These findings suggest the value of considering a new system for hurricane naming to reduce the influence of biases on hurricane risk assessments and to motivate optimal preparedness," the study concluded.


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