Greek alphabet banned after names confused people; Four hurricane names retired
The Greek alphabet has only been used twice in the 70 years since hurricanes were given names, but it was retired forever this week after the World Meteorological Organization said it was too confusing and distracted from the potential perils of a storm.
An unprecedented 2020 hurricane season blew through the traditional 21-name storm list in mid-September, forcing the National Hurricane Center to eventually delve nine names deep into the Greek alphabet. In the hyperactive 2005 season, six tropical cyclones earned Greek alphabet names.
Starting this year, an alternative list of people’s names – starting with Adria, Braylen and Caridad – will be used instead of the Greek alphabet if the regular list is exhausted.
“There was a lot of focus on the naming convention of the Greek alphabet rather than the impacts of the storm,” said National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham, who is also chairman of the WMO’s hurricane committee. “Though we only used the Greek alphabet twice, there were challenges.”
The hurricane committee, which includes representatives from 28 nations, met this week virtually after skipping the 2019 conference because of the coronavirus pandemic.
In addition to ending the use of the Greek alphabet, the committee also retired four storm names, including 2019’s Hurricane Dorian, and hurricanes Laura, Eta and Iota from the 2020 season.
Countries can petition the WMO each year to erase the names of particularly heinous hurricanes from the six-year rotating list of monikers.
Dorian’s Category 5 winds laid waste to areas of the northern Bahamas in late August and early September 2019. The hurricane left an estimated 29,500 people homeless and/or jobless, according to the Inter-American Development Bank. Damage estimates are $3.4 billion. Dorian was replaced with Dexter on the list of names to be used in 2025.
Laura, which made landfall near Cameron, La., as a 150-mph Category 4 on Aug. 28, was responsible for 47 direct deaths in the U.S. and Hispaniola, and more than $19 billion in damage. Laura was replaced with Leah in the list of names to be used in 2026.
Category 4 Eta and Category 5 Iota both devastated Central America just two weeks apart in November. Because the Greek alphabet will no longer be used, there are no replacement names for Eta and Iota.
Phil Klotzbach, a hurricane researcher for Colorado State University, said he thought hurricanes Sally, Delta and Zeta had chances at being retired from the 2020 season. Sally made landfall as a Category 2 hurricane near Gulf Shores, Ala., sending several feet of storm surge into Pensacola.
“You have cataclysmic storms like Dorian that are slam dunks but then there are question marks,” Klotzbach said. “There are no specific metrics to retiring a storm. It’s subjective.”
The 2020 hurricane season had a record 30 named storms, including 13 hurricanes. Of the 13 hurricanes, six were major storms of Category 3 or higher. A normal season has 12 named storms, including six hurricanes, of which three are major hurricanes.
Twelve storms made U.S. landfalls – tropical storms Bertha, Cristobal, Fay, and Beta, and hurricanes Hanna, Isaias, Laura, Marco, Sally, Delta, Zeta and Eta.
Graham said the committee is judicious about what names to retire, in part, because they could run out. The names they use need to be easy to understand, pronounce and versatile in French, Spanish and Portuguese. Graham said some people in the U.S. had trouble with Isaias last year, but that it is a common Spanish name.
Another problem with using the Greek alphabet names is that they can sound too similar, such as Zeta, Eta and Theta.
“People were mixing up the storms and some names weren’t translating well in Spanish,” Graham said.
Also, the Greek alphabet doesn’t follow the English alphabet in terms of order. Graham said he fielded numerous calls from people asking what would happen when Zeta was used up.
“People were worried that was the last name,” Graham said. “But Z is not the end of the Greek alphabet.”
Zeta is the 6th letter in the Greek alphabet.
Hurricanes began getting names in 1950 based on the phonetic alphabet. That was abandoned in 1953 when hurricanes started being named after women only. In 1978, men’s names were added.
2021 hurricane season: What's an invest and why do they keep saying tropical cyclone?
With the addition of Wednesday’s four names that were retired, 93 Atlantic tropical cyclone names have been banned since 1954.
Following the hyper-active hurricane year of 2017, four names were retired – Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate. They were replaced with Harold, Idalia, Margot and Nigel.
Michael and Florence were retired after the 2018 season, replaced by Francine and Milton.
The 2004 and 2005 seasons saw multiple names retired, including, Charley, Frances, Ivan, Jeanne, Dennis, Katrina, Rita, Stan and Wilma.