Female-Named Hurricanes Are Deadlier Than Males, But Why?

The Internet has been gobsmacked by a study finding that hurricanes with female names are more lethal than the ones named after males — after all, who can resist a headline like "Hell Hath No Fury Like a Woman Storm"? But the study's hypothesis about the reason for the phenomenon doesn't exactly rest on a solid foundation.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, analyzed the death tolls from 92 U.S. hurricanes between 1950 and 2012 (excluding Hurricanes Audrey and Katrina as outliers) and determined that the storms named after women produced significantly more casualties.

The researchers also conducted six surveys and found that the respondents generally judged male-named hurricanes to be more intense and riskier than female-named storms.

Image: Katrina
A satellite image from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration shows Hurricane Katrina bearing down on the Gulf Coast on Aug. 28, 2005. NOAA via Reuters file

The authors concluded that people would be less likely to take protective action against Hurricane Alexandra than Hurricane Alexander — and that would leave them more vulnerable. Hence the higher death toll.

That's a debatable conclusion, however, as National Geographic Phenomena's Ed Yong points out on his award-winning blog, Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Before 1979, meteorologists used only female names for hurricanes, and over the decades, the trend has been toward fewer storm-related deaths, due to improvements in prediction and protection. That trend should boost the female storms' average.

When the researchers looked only at storms since 1979, the correlation between the male-female split and the fatality counts was judged "marginally significant" (and Yong points out that many would consider the p=0.073 correlation not significant at all). The researchers say they couldn't draw any solid conclusions about storms since 1979 because the sample sizes were too small.

The links between the perceptions about male- and female-named storms are on firmer statistical ground, and that angle might merit further research. Someday, forecasters may consider using more gender-neutral names (say, Hurricane Alpha) — but probably not because of this study alone.

Authors of the PNAS study, "Female Hurricanes are Deadlier Than Male Hurricanes," include Kiju Jung, Sharon Shavitt and Madhu Viswanathan of the University of Illinois and Joseph Hilbe of Arizona State University.