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Busy hurricane season could result in future storms taking names from Greek alphabet

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The Atlantic is running out of storm names with more than two months remaining in the 2020 hurricane season.

It is quite likely that Wilfred — the sole name left on the list of 21 — will be used before the end of the season. And, if so, any tropical cyclones that come afterwards will take names from the Greek alphabet.

This has only happened once before, in 2005, when there were 27 named storms in the Atlantic basin.

The World Meteorological Organization maintains and updates the list of storm names used each season. It curates six lists that are rotated and recycled every six years. But it is rare for each name on a list to be used in a season.

Cary J. Mock, a climatologist and professor of geography at the University of South Carolina, said it wasn’t until after World War II that people got serious about naming Atlantic hurricanes. In the late 1940s, a series of phonetic or military-like names were given to storms. But this habit didn’t catch on.

An international list of phonetic names was introduced a decade later.

“And we used that for a few years, but it wasn’t very organized,” Mock said. “As a matter of fact, we reused some of the same names.”

“One of them was Hurricane Able," he said. "It was a Hurricane Able back-to-back years.”

A systematic and alphabetical list of names was first used in 1954 for tropical cyclone designations, Mock said. Only female names were included at that time. 

“Some people thought that they were more catchy,” Mock said. “But it became controversial over the years that they were targeting female names.”

So, in the late 1970s, male names were added.

The meteorological organization's storm names lists exclude those that begin with Q,U,X,Y and Z. Jhordanne Jones, an atmospheric science graduate research assistant at Colorado State University, said it may be tougher to think of names that begin with those letters.

Hurricane Wire is a pop-up newsletter during hurricane season that delivers anyone who lives on the East Coast all the information they need to know as storms brew in the Atlantic and beyond.

She said storm names are sometimes reused, but several have been retired. For example, Katrina hasn’t been used since 2005, when a storm by that name came ashore in New Orleans, killing 1,800 people and causing $125 billion in damages.

Hugo is also on the list of retired name. In 1989, the Category 4 hurricane became one of the strongest to ever hit South Carolina. At least 86 people died as a result of the storm, which left in it's wake about $10 billion in damages. 

According to the National Hurricane Center, names are retired if the associated storm was so deadly or costly that using the same name for a different storm would be inappropriate.

Looking ahead, Jones said a number of tropical formations can be safely expected well into December. But that depends on how favorable the environment continues to be.

“Unfortunately, I think this hurricane season has been quite a doozy to try and forecast,” Jones said.

“We know that the environment is completely favorable, right," she said. "We’ve seen it all year this year. But because it has been so favorable, it’s hard to predict just exactly, one, the intensity that storms will get to; and two, how long they’ll be active for.”

The 2020 hurricane season has had strong parallels with 2005. But the storms in 2005 were a lot more destructive for society, Mock said.

“This year, we’ve had a lot of storms, but we’ve been kind of lucky,” Mock said. “And I think South Carolina, at least for now, has been pretty lucky.”

There were seven major hurricanes in 2005. But so far this hurricane season a lot of the storms have been short-lived and developed close to the Gulf Coast. By the time the storms had intensified or matured, they made landfall and then rapidly weakened and moved further north, Jones said.

Because of this uncertainty, Jones said, people should be on high alert going into the rest of the 2020 hurricane season.

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