In March of this year, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a United Nations agency, announced that the Greek alphabet will no longer be used to name hurricanes.

A list of 21 names in alphabetical order is established by the WMO for six years in the future. In the seventh year, the list is repeated. However, if the storm is of historical significance, like Hurricane Katrina or Sandy, the name is retired and never used. This year it was announced that Dorian, Laura, Eta, and Iota would be no longer used due to the loss of life and the tremendous amount of damage they caused. Since 1953 when storms began to be named under the current system, nearly 100 names have retired from the Atlantic basin.

The names they choose tend to be short and reflect the common handles found in the geographic locations, which has reduced confusion and sped up communications with fewer errors.

Before this upcoming Atlantic hurricane which runs from June through November, if all 21 chosen names were used up in a single season, then the Greek alphabet was adopted (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon).

During the historic 2005 hurricane season, Tropical Storm Zeta was used, which was the furthest down the list up to that point. However, last year, the 2020 season produced 30 named storms, the most on record, surpassing the 28 from 2005, and the second-highest number of hurricanes on record.

Last year, the Greek alphabet caused confusion; when Hurricane Zeta slammed into Louisiana, most people thought that Zeta was the last letter in the Greek alphabet but only the sixth letter in the 24-letter Greek alphabet. Zeta is followed by Eta and Theta with Omega at the end.

According to the WMO Hurricane Committee, A supplemental list of names (excluding Q, U, and X, Y, and Z on the Atlantic list) would be used instead of the Greek alphabet.

So, how do these storms get their name?

In the early days of meteorology, tropical cyclones were named by the places or things they hit or the days they occurred, such as a saint's day or a holiday. For example, the deadliest hurricane to hit the United States was the Galveston, Texas, hurricane of 1900. At least 8,000 people died in that storm.

"Tropical cyclones" is the generic term for an organized system of convective clouds that rotate around an area of low pressure over tropical or subtropical waters. For one of these storms to strengthen, the seawater must be at least 80 degrees Fahrenheit or greater. Once these systems reach a sustained wind speed of 74 mph or higher, it is then classified as a hurricane, typhoon, or cyclone. The only difference between a cyclone, hurricane, or typhoon is where the storm is formed. The term "hurricane" is used in the Atlantic and Northeast Pacific. In the Northwest Pacific, it's called a "typhoon," and "cyclones" happen in the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

The first person to name tropical cyclones was Queensland, Australia, meteorologist Clement Lindley Wragge (1852-1922) in the late 1800s. He started to call these storms after letters in the Greek alphabet, then later by women's names. It's been said that Wragge had an inclement temper, and he took to naming cyclones after politicians whom he disliked. A forecaster could publicly describe a storm named after a politician as "wandering about the Pacific with no aim or purpose." Or worse yet, "caused great distress." Wragge resigned from the Queensland government in 1903 when funding for his weather bureau was significantly decreased.

During World War II, Navy and Army meteorologists began to name the storms after their wives or girlfriends. By 1945, the armed forces adopted a list of women's names for typhoons in the Western Pacific. Stateside, the U.S. Weather Bureau used the Army/Navy phonetic alphabet (Able-Baker-Charlie-etc.) to name storms. However, in the 1950s, a new international phonetic alphabet was implemented (Alpha-Beta-Charlie-etc.), which caused confusion. To remedy this, the weather bureau began to call storms by women's names. In 1979, the U.S. National Hurricane Center switched to a hurricane name list that alternated men's and women's names.

What will this hurricane season bring?

The latest guidance from the Climate Prediction Center (CPC) center indicates the current La Niña will continue through summer and become the infamous neutral condition — "El Nothing" or "El Nada".

In a neutral condition, the amount of wind shear in the upper atmosphere tends to be diminished, aiding in the development of hurricanes. To make matters worse, near- or above-average sea-surface temperatures across the tropical Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico will provide the energy needed for tropical cyclone genesis and intensification.

On the heels of last year's record-breaking season, The National Oceanic and Administration predicts another active tropical cyclone year with 17 named storms in the Atlantic basin. The average since 1981 is 12.

John Lindsey is Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s Diablo Canyon Power Plant marine meteorologist and a media relations representative. Email him at or follow him on Twitter @PGE_John.


Recommended for you

Load comments