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“Female” Hurricanes Kill More People Than “Male” Ones

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Hurricane season officially began yesterday, and weather experts predict that several large storms will make landfall in coastal areas between now and December. And according to a brand new study, it's the ladies you've got to watch out for: Hurricanes with feminine names may cause significantly more deaths than those with masculine names, University of Illinois researchers say.

Tropical storms' and hurricanes' names have nothing to do with their severity, of course; every year they are chosen from a list of pre-determined, alternating boy-girl-boy-girl monikers that follow an alphabetical order but skip U and Q. (Last year, for example, ended with Sebastien, Tanya, Van, and Wendy.)

Even so, when researchers looked at more than 60 years of death rates from U.S. hurricanes, they found that the more feminine a storm's name, the more people it killed. The analysis, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, goes as far as to suggest that changing a severe hurricane's name from "Charley" to "Eloise" could nearly triple its death toll. [Tweet this shocking stat!]

And the researchers say it's likely not just a coincidence. They believe that female hurricanes are seen as less threatening than male ones. As a result, people may take fewer protective measures in the days and hours leading up to the storms, leaving them more vulnerable to their destruction.

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In a follow-up study, they tested their theory by asking people to imagine being in the path of "Hurricane Alexandra" (or "Christina" or "Victoria") versus "Hurricane Alexander" (or "Christopher" or "Victor"). Sure enough, people envisioning the female storms described them as less risky and less intense—and were less likely to seek shelter—than those picturing male storms.

"People appear to be applying their beliefs about how men and women behave," co-author Sharon Shavitt said in a press release. "This makes a female-named hurricane, especially one with a very feminine name such as Belle or Cindy, seem gentler and less violent."

Fun fact: Hurricanes used to only be named after females—first as a way for Army and Navy meteorologists to pay tribute to their wives and girlfriends back home, and also as a nod to the storms' unpredictable behavior. The practice was changed in the 1970s to the less sexist (but apparently more dangerous!) system we use today.

It will be interesting to see if these findings spark any changes within the National Hurricane Center's naming system. Until then, please be careful out there and be sure to take all recommended precautions no matter what the "sex" of the storm brewing in your neck of the woods. 


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