Twenty tropical storms and hurricanes have already been named in the Atlantic in 2020, with months left to go before the oceans finally settle. The breakneck pace of the 2020 season has far outpaced the 11-storm seasonal average that usually prevails, and it has nearly exhausted the list of names that can be assigned to storms this year. It’s highly likely meteorologists will have to dip into the Greek alphabet for additional storm names — but some fear this convention, as is, could be problematic.

The Greek alphabet has only been utilized once before, during the infamous hurricane season of 2005. Seven major hurricanes formed, with 27 named storms spinning up between June 2005 and January 2006.

That year, six storms were assigned Greek letters for names. Beta attained major hurricane status in late October, but it weakened slightly to a Category 2 before making landfall in Nicaragua.

This naming convention worked well in 2005, but with the looming likelihood it will be used again this year, meteorologists have some concerns with the practice. Some are even hoping the tradition will be revamped entirely.

Among them is James Franklin, former chief of the hurricane specialist unit at the National Hurricane Center. He and his colleagues identified a flaw with the current system.

When names are retired

If a hurricane or tropical cyclone worldwide is “particularly deadly or costly, then its name is retired and replaced by another one,” based on protocols set by the World Meteorological Organization.

The National Hurricane Center notes that, in these instances, “future use of its name on a different storm would be inappropriate for obvious reasons of sensitivity.”

Since 1954, 89 names have been retired and replaced from the World Meteorological Organization’s six-year rotating list of hurricane names. Katrina, for example, was replaced with Katia when the list cycled back in 2011. Before 1978, Atlantic storms were only assigned female names.

The name Dorian, attached to the cataclysmic storm that brutalized Grand Bahama and Abaco islands in September 2019, has not yet been retired — because the conference at which that agenda item is addressed was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The National Hurricane Center believes having a short, distinctive and easy to remember name streamlines communication of tropical threats.

But what if a hurricane named after a Greek letter causes widespread damage or casualties? It presents an unusual case that, before 2020, hadn’t been thought about much.

“I assume we’ll get to the Greek alphabet,” said Franklin. “If we have a bad one and the name has to be retired, I think [the issue] has to be taken up again. I mean you could skip [a Greek letter], but that’s sort of weird.”

Past proposals for change

Franklin, along with several others, proposed maintaining a separate, seventh set of names in the mid-2000s. These names, a bank reserved only for the “extra” storms during overactive seasons such as 2005 or 2020, would be easy to replace if one were retired. A Greek letter, on the contrary, has no replacement.

“I remembered proposing internally toward the end of 2005 as we got to the beginning of November that we come up with a secondary list of regular names that we would just use instead,” said Franklin. “Actually, the rest of my colleagues internally at [the National Hurricane Center] decided, ‘No, let’s not do that,’ but then it got proposed elsewhere from [the National Weather Service], too.”

At the NOAA Hurricane Conference, held in November 2005, U.S. weather officials approved the measure for forwarding to the World Meteorological Organization. But when the United States sent delegates to the corresponding international meeting the following spring, the proposal was rejected.

“What got reported back was something along the lines of, ‘We like the Greek alphabet because it’s special, it’s different, it conveys the uniqueness of having exceeded the regular alphabet,’ which didn’t strike me as a particularly logical reason,” said Franklin.

He said international representatives even “talked [the U.S.] into” voting down the proposed change, the rejection was apparently agreed upon “unanimously.”

“I think the U.S. proposed it again to WMO in 2010, and although I don’t have a record of it being rejected again, clearly it didn’t get approved,” Franklin said.

Where 2020 sits

If any year were to again run the risk of forcing a Greek name to be retired, 2020 is the year. Only one name remains on the list of storm names, Wilfred.

Considering we may tap into the Greek alphabet sooner this year than in 2005, when Tropical Storm Alpha formed on Oct. 22, there is a chance we dive deeper into the Greek alphabet.

“I think there was a kind of thinking, ‘We’ll deal with the [Greek letter] retirement issue if it ever comes up,’ ” said Franklin of the WMO’s decision, but he has a suspicion it may enter the conversation again this year.

“I’m going to guess it’s going to come up again,” he said.

The World Meteorological Organization published an article Tuesday explaining how it intends to handle retiring a storm named using the Greek alphabet, if necessary.

The WMO “decided that if a significant storm designated by a letter of the Greek Alphabet, in either the Atlantic or eastern North Pacific Basin, was considered worthy of being ‘retired’, it would be included in the list of retired names with the year of occurrence and other details, but that the particular letter in the Greek Alphabet would continue to be available for use in the future,” the article stated.