The Greek alphabet will never be used again to name tropical storms

Photo courtesy of NOAA/ CNN

The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season finished with 30 total named storms — the most in any year on record — but three of those names will never be used again.

Posted: Mar 20, 2021 4:18 PM

CNN-- The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season finished with 30 total named storms — the most in any year on record — but three of those names will never be used again.

Something else that will never be used again: The Greek alphabet as a backup list for when all the names on the annual storm naming list are used.

"The Greek alphabet will not be used in future because it creates a distraction from the communication of hazard and storm warnings and is potentially confusing," the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) announced on Wednesday.

The WMO's Hurricane Committee held its annual meeting this week to discuss past hurricane seasons and update its operational plans for upcoming seasons. At Wednesday's meeting, the committee decided to retire the name Laura and replace it with Leah.

The committee also retired one name from the 2019 Atlantic hurricane season since it was unable to meet last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Dorian will be retired from the 2019 season and replaced with Dexter on the list in 2025.

The Greek letters Eta and Iota from the 2020 season will be retired as well, which is significant since before this year, the WMO made it very clear that it would not ever retire Greek names. The issue here was that there was no formal plan for retiring Greek names, but the committee realized that any future use of the names Eta and Iota would be "inappropriate."

The controversy of the Greek alphabet

The WMO oversees the naming off all tropical systems in every ocean basin globally. The list of Atlantic tropical cyclone names repeats every six years unless a storm is so deadly or costly that the WMO retires it from future lists.

Hurricanes Eta and Iota were two of the top three deadliest tropical systems last year, but there were additional reasons as to why these Greek letters were retired.

"There can be too much focus on the use of Greek alphabet names and not the actual impacts from the storm," the WMO stated in a press release. "This can greatly detract from the needed impact and safety messaging."

"There is confusion with some Greek alphabet names when they are translated into other languages used within the Region. The pronunciation of several of the Greek letters (Zeta, Eta, Theta) are similar and occur in succession. In 2020, this resulted in storms with very similar sounding names occurring simultaneously, which led to messaging challenges rather than streamlined and clear communication."

This isn't the only year that this particular topic has been brought up. In 2005, Hurricane Beta became a deadly Category 3 storm, causing nine deaths and more than $15.5 million in damage across four countries.

However, 2005 was the first year that the Greek alphabet was ever used in 26 years of consistently naming Atlantic hurricanes. At the time, the committee did not deem it necessary to retire these Greek alphabet names as it did not expect to dip into that list very often. However, this same situation occurred in 2020 -- only 15 years later.

The Greek alphabet will be replaced by a supplemental list of names using the same rules as the main Atlantic hurricane season naming list — a list of names A-Z but excluding the letters Q, U, X, Y, and Z — for if and when the initial list of names has been exhausted.

This will allow for the supplemental list of names to be more easily retired and replaced when the need arises.

"Names beginning with Q, U, X, Y and Z are still not common enough or easily understood in local languages to be slotted into the rotating lists" the committee said.

The record season

2020 was a record year for hurricanes in the Atlantic so it's no surprise that there are three names that will be retired — Laura, Eta, and Iota.

The record for most retired names in a single season is five, set in 2005: Dennis, Katrina, Rita, Stan, and Wilma. Four other years have had four names retired — 1955, 1995, 2004, and 2017.

People along nearly every mile of coastline from Texas to Maine were affected by at least one named storm this season.

Laura caused 77 deaths and more than $19 billion in damages, making it the costliest hurricane of the 2020 season. Laura's top winds reached up to 150 mph, and its storm surge exceeded 15 feet causing heavy damage along the southwestern Louisiana coast. Laura was also the strongest hurricane (at landfall) to hit Louisiana since 1856.

Hurricane Eta made landfall in Central America as a Category 4 hurricane. The storm stalled over Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala, for several days bringing torrential rain and subsequent flooding wiped entire communities off the map.

Landslides swept through the area, leaving mud 50 feet deep in some places. Just weeks later many of the same locations were hit by another devastating storm - Iota.

Hurricane Iota is considered the strongest storm to hit Nicaragua in the country's history. More than 400,000 people in Nicaragua were affected by the storm as it made landfall as a strong Category 4 storm with maximum sustained winds near 155 mph.

The 2020 season got off to an early and rapid start with the first named storm, Arthur, coming two weeks before the official start date of June 1.

Due to this, it was also discussed at the meeting this week about moving the formal start date of Atlantic hurricane season up two weeks to May 15, to match the start date of the eastern Pacific hurricane season.

However, the committee decided against changing the official start date of the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season.

Storm intensity isn't everything

Just because a tropical system reaches a high category in strength doesn't mean it will automatically be retired. In 2019, Hurricanes Dorian and Lorenzo reached Category 5 strength, but only Dorian was retired.

Both hurricanes were incredibly powerful as well as deadly. Dorian and Lorenzo were the deadliest and second deadliest storms respectively in the 2019 season. But Lorenzo was not retired because it never made landfall as a tropical system.

Lorenzo attained its peak intensity over the open waters of the Atlantic before weakening considerably and transitioning into an extratropical cyclone.

Lorenzo was the second deadliest hurricane of the 2019 hurricane season causing 19 deaths. Eleven crew members of the Bourbon Rhode were killed when the ship sank near the eyewall of the hurricane, while it was over the open ocean.

An additional eight people died along the US East Coast due to dangerous surf conditions generated by the hurricane which was several hundred miles away.

Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas becoming the worst natural disaster in the country's history. Dorian recorded sustained wind speeds of 185 mph, tying the record for maximum sustained wind speed for an Atlantic hurricane that made landfall. It shares that record with the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane.

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