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Breakdown: Why hurricane names will no longer use the Greek alphabet

As we are nearing the end of the list of names for the 2021 Atlantic Hurricane Season, what happens next now that the Greek alphabet won’t be used to name tropical cyclones anymore?
Published: Sep. 29, 2021 at 12:57 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - An unprecedented 2020 hurricane season blew through the traditional 21-name storm list in mid-September, forcing the National Hurricane Center to eventually delve 9 names deep into the Greek alphabet.

No more using Greek letters for naming hurricanes. There are no guidelines for retiring a storm...
No more using Greek letters for naming hurricanes. There are no guidelines for retiring a storm named with a Greek letter. Last year, 3 storms named with a Greek letter were major hurricanes and were worthy of retirement.(WMO)

Turns out the names were Greek to a lot of people, and forecasters worried about creating confusion.

Mr. Graham said that the confusion was particularly evident after Hurricane Zeta hit Louisiana last year. He said he got phone calls from people who believed that Zeta was the last letter in the Greek alphabet and were asking what the next storm would be named.

“People were worried that was the last name,” said National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham. “But Z is not the end of the Greek alphabet.”

In fact, Zeta is only the sixth letter in the 24-letter Greek alphabet. Omega is the last.

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.

Many people were confused by the sounds of the Greek letters, and public attention often focused more on the use of the alphabet itself than on the destruction caused by the storms, officials said.

Tropical storms are given names to help with this communication and is essential when it comes to tracking these storms.

“Zeta, Eta, Theta — if you think about even me saying those — to have those storms at the same time was tough,” said Kenneth Graham, the director of the National Hurricane Center, pointing to three Greek letters that were used in rapid succession to name three of the last storms of the season. “People were mixing the storms up.”

Although the naming convention is only a small part of the Hurricane Committee’s life-saving work, it attracts the most public attention.

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.

“I think we kept it simple, which wasn’t easy,” said Mr. Graham, the chairman of the Hurricane Committee. “If you think about the list of names that we could pick, it’s very easy to get a situation where they’re too complicated or tough to say because, remember, we’re talking about English, we’re talking about Spanish, we’re talking about French and, in some cases, also Portuguese.”

On the advice of the World Meteorological Organization, Greek letters will be dropped and the National Hurricane Center will just have to have more names ready, just in case - starting with Adria, Braylen and Caridad.

A supplemental list of Atlantic tropical cyclone names will be used in lieu of using the Greek...
A supplemental list of Atlantic tropical cyclone names will be used in lieu of using the Greek Alphabet.(WMC)

Like the main list of storm names, the supplemental list does not include names that begin with the letters Q, U, X, Y or Z, which officials said are not common enough or easily understood across English, Spanish, French and Portuguese languages.

In the 70 years since hurricanes were given names, the Greek alphabet has only been used one other time - in 2005, another busy storm season ripped through the names on the government’s list.

Storm names are produced and maintained by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Atlantic tropical cyclone name lists repeat every six years unless a storm is so deadly or costly that its name is retired from future lists.

Ninety-three names have now been retired from the Atlantic storm list since 1953, when storms began to be named under the current system.

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