Who Chooses Hurricane Names, and What Happens if They’re All Used?

MIAMI — As Hurricane Sally gained strength and churned toward the Gulf Coast this week, Tropical Storms Teddy and Vicky were designated in the Atlantic as the season’s 19th and 20th named storms, each moving closer to the end of the alphabet.

The Atlantic hurricane season this year has stirred up storms at such a rapid rate that there is now only one entry — Wilfred — left on the 21-name list that meteorologists use for each season.

Forecasters say they are likely to exhaust the current list, given that this is the height of the season, which began on June 1 and ends on Nov. 30. This week, there were five named storms at once in the Atlantic, a phenomenon that has not happened since 1971, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (Tropical Depression Rene dissolved on Monday.)

“Considering we are at 20 named storms now — we’re just barely past the halfway point of the season — that’s a lot,” said Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman and meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center in Miami. “We still have two and a half months of the season to go.”

Once forecasters reach a storm past Wilfred, they will have to turn to names based on the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet, beginning with Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta.

“We’ve only done it once,” Mr. Feltgen said, “and that was 2005.” That year, meteorologists used six Greek names in the hurricane season, which had 28 storms, he said.

Mr. Feltgen described the 2020 hurricane season as “hyperactive” compared with the average hurricane season, which usually produces 12 named storms, including three that develop into major hurricanes.

In May, NOAA predicted an above-normal season in the Atlantic, with as many as 19 named storms, with up to 10 that could become hurricanes. And as many as six of those could develop into Category 3, 4 or 5 hurricanes, it forecast.

The season was off to a record pace by July 30 with nine named storms, the most ever recorded since the satellite era began in 1966, according to NOAA. Before the official start of the season, Arthur, the first named storm, formed off the coast of Florida in May followed by Bertha, which made landfall near Charleston, S.C., later that month.

Last month, government scientists updated their outlook.

“It’s shaping up to be one of the most active seasons on record,” Louis Uccellini, director of the National Weather Service, said at the time.

ImageFive storms churning in the Atlantic basin, from left: Hurricane Sally, Hurricane Paulette, the remnants of Tropical Storm Rene and Tropical Storms Teddy and Vicky.
Credit…NOAA, via Associated Press

Gerry Bell, the lead hurricane season forecaster with the climate prediction center of NOAA, said last month that there could be as many as 25 named storms before the end of the season. And seven to 11 of the storms could be hurricanes, with winds of 74 miles per hour or higher, including three to six major ones.

In recent decades, scientists have seen increased hurricane activity in the North Atlantic, by a measure that combines intensity with characteristics like duration and frequency of storms. Climate scientists say there are links between global warming and at least the intensity of hurricanes. As ocean temperatures rise, hurricanes grow stronger as warm water serves as the fuel that powers them.

Cyclones and hurricanes are named “for people easily to understand and remember” each storm, according to the World Meteorological Organization, the international group that now maintains and assigns the lists of names.

“Many agree that appending names to storms makes it easier for the media to report on tropical cyclones, heightens interest in warnings and increases community preparedness,” the W.M.O. said.

The organization said that storms are “named neither after any particular person, nor with any preference in alphabetical sequence.” The group added that the selected names are “familiar to the people in each region.”

The lists are recycled every six years with male and female names alternating alphabetically. For example, the 2019 list will be used again in 2025.

The practice of naming Atlantic tropical storms dates at least back to 1953, when the National Hurricane Center began to compile lists of names in the United States. The original lists featured only women’s names until 1979, when men’s names were added.

Although there are 26 letters in the English alphabet, the W.M.O. does not use names that begin with the letters Q, U, X, Y or Z because “there aren’t enough of them,” said John Morales, the chief meteorologist at WTVJ-TV, the NBC station in Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

“You need to have enough names,” said Mr. Feltgen, noting that there needed to be at least six names per letter as well as backup names, and that the names needed to include male and female options.

Hurricane names are typically retired when the storms become history-making for causing destruction and death; reusing the name would be insensitive to people who were affected by the storm. More than 80 names have been retired from the Atlantic list, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Credit…Sophia Germer/The Advocate, via Associated Press

Hurricane Andrew, for example, the Category 5 storm that pummeled south Miami-Dade in 1992, was blamed for 61 deaths and about $27 billion in damage at the time, according to NOAA.

And Katrina, the 2005 hurricane that deluged New Orleans, killed more than 1,500 people. That high storm season also produced Dennis, Rita, Stan and Wilma — names that have been dropped by meteorologists. More storm names were retired from the 2005 season than any other, according to the W.M.O.

In 2018, the international hurricane committee announced it was retiring four hurricane names Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate from its roster of Atlantic tropical cyclone names because of their devastating tolls in the 2017 season. They were replaced with Harold, Idalia, Margot and Nigel, which will appear on the 2023 list.

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