Hurricanes: Names all used up for 2020

Hurricanes, satelite image

There were 21 names reserved for hurricanes in 2020. On Friday, Sept. 18, as the tropical storm season reached its peak, two more hurricanes needed names. Hurricane Wilfred is one of them, the last of the names available for 2020. Meteorologists then had to resort to the Greek alphabet. The next one is Hurricane Alpha. Soon after those two, forecasters noticed Beta, a new tropical storm developing. Forecasters expect Hurricane Beta to reach hurricane strength on Sunday night or Monday. The potential landfall in Texas is forecast for Monday night or Tuesday morning.

Have you ever wondered who chooses the names for hurricanes?

Up until the 1950s, numbers identified hurricanes and typhoons (both are tropical cyclones). Some names referred to the latitude and longitude where they developed or where they struck land. For example, in 1900, the Great Galveston Hurricane came ashore at Galveston. Some were named for saints, like the 1876 San Felipe Hurricane. The destruction they caused made up other hurricane names. For instance, Antje’s Hurricane de-masted a ship with that name in 1842.

Hurricanes, ship mast

In 1953, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) took on the responsibility to name tropical cyclones in coordination with the National Hurricane Center. The shorter, simpler names are easier to remember.

How are the names of hurricanes allocated?

The method I describe here applies to tropical storms in the North Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. Until 1979, all tropical cyclones had women names, but names alternate between men and women since that year. WMO uses the alphabet to create lists of 21 names. Allocation happens in alphabetic order and the lists exclude the letters Q, U, X, Y and Z. There are six lists, which rotate in six-year cycles. For example, this year’s list will be used again in 2026.

Tropical storm

When do they use the Greek alphabet?

In hurricane seasons as extreme as this year, the list of 21 alphabetic names is exhausted. When this happens, the Greek alphabet comes into play. The rest of that season’s hurricanes will have names like Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, etc. Before this year, the Greek letters were only used once before. In 2005, forecasters ran out of English alphabet names. They used the Greek alphabet’s first six letters to name the rest of the 27 tropical storms of that season.

Some Hurricane names are retired

We all remember Hurricane Katrina, and nobody wants to hear a warning that another Katrina is on the way. Katrina caused more than 1,800 deaths during the last week of August 2005. It caused damage of about $125 billion, mostly in and around New Orleans.

Hurricanes, flood New Orleans
Hurricane Katrina Devastation

WMO retires all the particularly devastating hurricanes‘ names and replaces them with other names starting with the same letter. For example, they replaced Katrina with Katia. Other retired storms are Hugo, Andrew, Florence and Michael. Excluding the hurricane season of 2020, 89 names of Atlantic hurricanes have been retired since 1953. Every season has at least one tropical storm strong enough to have its name retired. Along with 2014, only four other seasons over the past 25 years have passed without striking a name from the list.

We don’t know when the 2020 hurricane season will be over. Alpha and Beta might not be the only Greek letters allocated to hurricanes this year.


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