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With only 21 names on the Atlantic storm list, what happened to the other 5 letters?

(NOAA via AP)
Published: Sep. 21, 2020 at 1:52 PM CDT
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BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Over the past couple of weeks, more and more people have asked, “Why do they only use 21 letters in the alphabet when naming tropical systems in the Atlantic?”

Let’s begin with some basics.

According to the NHC, naming storms minimizes any confusion that might occur, especially when two (or more) systems are active at the same time. Distinctive names are a bit more identifiable than simply tagging storms as “One,” “Two,” and “Three” or “A,” “B,” and “C.”

Beginning in 1979, a committee within the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) established six lists of names for Atlantic storms. Names in the list are English, French, and Spanish, reflecting the primary languages of countries impacted by Atlantic hurricanes. 2020′s Isaias, for example, is the Spanish equivalent of Isaiah.

Each list is composed of alternating male and female names with the first name in each of the six lists also alternating between genders. In effect, each storm name returns every 7 years unless it is “retired” and replaced. The same WMO group makes the decision as to whether a storm name gets retired, and if so, the committee determines a replacement name beginning with the same letter and maintaining the same gender.

You’ve likely noticed recently that the names jumped right past X, Y, and Z, taking us into the Greek alphabet for only the second time ever. But did you catch the leap-frogs over Q and U? The letters Q, U, X, Y, & Z are skipped because of a lack of names for these letters, even with multiple languages to choose from.

Quincy, Ulysses, Xavier, Yves, and Zachary? That’s five male names right there: how hard can this be? Now we need five female names.

Quentina, Ursula, Xena, Yvonne, and Zelda. Piece of cake, right?

Wait, that is only enough names for two of the six lists. We need three male names and three female names for each letter to complete the six lists plus we need at least one more of each in case one of the names gets retired. In the end, those five letters require a minimum of 36 names.

Maybe skipping those letters isn’t such a bad idea?

On September 18, Wilfred became only the second “W” storm ever in the Atlantic, setting the stage for only the second foray into the Greek alphabet for names. And Mother Nature and the NHC didn’t waste any time either, with the NHC tagging Alpha in the eastern Atlantic and Beta in the Gulf on the same day!

Three storms named on a single day is noteworthy enough (it has happened only once before) but spring-boarding into the Greek alphabet in mid-September is just another sign of 2020′s tropical hyper-activity.

The only other use of the Greek alphabet was during the 2005 season, which will always be remembered for the disasters named Katrina and Rita, not for Alpha and Beta. What’s more, 2005′s Alpha didn’t arrive until October 22, nearly 5 weeks later than the “birthday” of 2020′s Alpha. In 2005, six Greek letters were used for storm names. Based on the pace of 2020 thus far, we are likely to go far deeper into the Greek alphabet this year.

And in case you are wondering, the WMO has declared that no Greek letters will be “retired,” regardless of the ferocity of a Greek-letter storm. Were such an instance to occur, the storm would be added to the list of “retirees” with the exception that the letter would return to the Greek list for re-use when needed.

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