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What happens when we run out of names for tropical storms?

Things are about to ‘go Greek’

We're quickly running out of official names to use for the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season.
We're quickly running out of official names to use for the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season. (Copyright 2020 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

NOTE: As of Friday, September 18, 2020, the names Wilfred and Alpha have been assigned to tropical systems in the Atlantic Basin

It’s safe to say that the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season has been one for the books.

With one and a half months of hurricane season still left to go, we’re running out of names to use as storms develop. In fact, we’ve only got one name left -- Wilfred -- and it looks very likely that Wilfred will develop soon.

So what do meteorologists do when we use all of the names? First, let’s answer some questions:

Who determines which names are used?

Every year the World Meteorological Organization creates lists of names that are common to the regions where the storms will occur.

For example, hurricanes occur in Atlantic and East Pacific Oceans. Hurricanes - and weaker tropical storms - are given names such as “Alice,” “Charlie" and “Sally." These are names that many across North America are familiar with.

Meanwhile typhoons, which occur in the Northwest Pacific Ocean, are given names that are more common in Asia. These include names like “Hagupit,” “Jangmi" and “Sepat.”

What does the list look like for the Atlantic Basin?

The WMO lists 21 alphabetical names and repeats them every four years. If a storm is particularly damaging, the name will be retired and replaced with another name starting with the same letter.

An example of this? Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005, was replaced with the name “Katia” on the rotating list.

What are the names for the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season?

In the Atlantic Basin, these are the names that are assigned for tropical storms and hurricanes in 2020. Names with red lines through them have already been used
In the Atlantic Basin, these are the names that are assigned for tropical storms and hurricanes in 2020. Names with red lines through them have already been used (Copyright 2020 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

Above is the list of names assigned for the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season. You may notice that a few letters are missing - Q, U, X, Y, Z. This is because names starting with these letters are fairly rare, and it would be difficult to keep the list fresh if storms needed to be retired. You can read a great article about the reasoning behind leaving out these letters here.

How does the 2020 season compare with other years?

This has been a very active year for tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic Basin. Even though hurricane season in the Atlantic began June 1, we started off the year with Tropical Storms Arthur and Bertha at the end of May. Tropical Storm Cristobal was the earliest "C" named storm on record, and 16 other storms this year have laid claim to the earliest on record as well.

Once again, there is only one storm name left on the list - Wilfred - and it is likely to form soon. So that brings us back to our original question:

What happens when we run out of names?

The WMO has determined that when a hurricane season is particularly active and all alphabetical names are used, storms will be then be named in the order of the Greek alphabet.

This is the list of "names" tropical storms would be given when we run out of alphabetical names originally assigned to 2020.
This is the list of "names" tropical storms would be given when we run out of alphabetical names originally assigned to 2020. (Copyright 2020 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

Has the Greek alphabet ever been used to name storms before?

Yes, but only once in recorded history -- 2005. This was the year that saw three of the most intense hurricanes on record -- Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma.

Wilma was the last storm on the WMO alphabetical list for 2005, with Tropical Storm Alpha developing October 22. Eventually, Tropical Storm Zeta was the last storm to develop on December 30, making for six named storms reaching into the Greek alphabet.

How can I stay informed about the rest of the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane season?

If you would like to continue to track this historic hurricane season with us, please visit our hurricane page or download the KSAT Hurricane Tracker App to follow along with the busiest Atlantic hurricane season on record.

Types of Tropical Systems

Meteorologist Sarah Spivey explains the different types and categories of tropical systems in the video below.


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