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Hurricanes Eta and Iota brought disaster to Central America. Officials can’t retire their names.

Meteorologists are pushing to change the existing naming convention

Hurricane Iota at Category 5 strength Monday. (RAMMB/CIRA)
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When Atlantic Hurricane Season 2020 shifted into overdrive in September and forced the National Hurricane Center to turn to the Greek alphabet for naming, meteorologists expressed concerns. Tradition had it that storms whose impact was “particularly deadly or costly” would have their names retired and replaced. But the World Meteorological Organization ruled that Greek letters could never be retired, lest an irreplaceable chunk be taken out of the alphabet. Now, that 2006 ruling is being tested after Eta’s and Iota’s deadly impact in Central America.

Eta roared ashore in northern Nicaragua on Nov. 3, followed by Iota exactly 13 days later and just 15 miles to the south. Both were Category 4 hurricanes at landfall, though Iota had attained Category 5 status offshore. The pair brought flood disasters across Central America, in addition to extreme wind and storm surge near the coast.

Category 4 Hurricane Iota slams into Nicaragua

They’re the textbook candidates for having their names axed from the Hurricane Center’s six-year rotating name list. Just as Katrina was replaced by Katia, Michael with Milton, and Sandy with Sara, there would ordinarily be little question that the name of a deadly and destructive Category 4 hurricane would be retired. But in the case of the Greek alphabet, there’s no easy replacement.

“The Committee … agreed that it was not practical to ‘retire into hurricane history’ a letter in the Greek Alphabet,” read a news release from the World Meteorological Organization, which oversees hurricane naming across the world’s oceans.

Instead of removing a letter from the list, Greek letters can only be symbolically retired. Under the current policy, “Eta 2020” and “Iota 2020” would be listed as retired storms if the WMO voted accordingly, but the names Eta and Iota would remain in circulation for future storms. Some meteorologists fear this defeats the purpose of retiring names, while others find that assigning Greek letters to storms is impractical to begin with.

Meteorologists have been concerned about the Greek alphabet convention for years

James Franklin, former chief of the hurricane specialist unit at the Hurricane Center, spearheaded an effort in early 2006 to abandon the practice of using Greek letters altogether, suggesting instead a reserve list of ordinary hurricane names. The National Weather Service initially supported this motion, but it was shot down by the WMO. The international agency liked the novelty of having an unconventional, distinct style, which the Greek letters offered, to convey the rarity and special nature of those storms.

Others have voiced concerns more recently, some offering viable alternatives to the current practice. Nate Johnson, the director of weather operations for NBC-owned television stations, believes officials should model Atlantic naming conventions after those in the Central Pacific. Instead of starting a new list every year, four alphabetical lists of names are used sequentially; the first storm of a new season picks up where the previous year left off.

“Keep the six [Atlantic] lists, but don’t reset at the beginning of each year,” Johnson tweeted. “And if you have more storms, just move to the next list. Bad storm? Retire and replace the name. No Greek letters, no confusion about retirements, etc.”

Johnson believes this process to be better anyway, since it reinforces consistency in attaching recognizable and communicable names to storms.

“If the goal is to use names, we should use names, not numbers, letters, or other things,” wrote Johnson in a Twitter message. “The consistency and familiarity helps keep our focus in that moment on the storm at hand and the people in its path rather than potentially distracting questions or confusion about what is essentially a seasonal metric.”

Johnson said that there shouldn’t be a need for a supplemental list of storms to sound special or different; he argues that the name of the storm shouldn’t change how people prepare.

“If we’re having such a ‘special’ season that we would need to dip into another list, there will be no shortage of entities reminding us of how ‘special’ and busy the season is,” Johnson wrote. “We won’t need a separate list to signal that.”

Marshall Shepherd, former president of the American Meteorological Society, called Johnson’s proposal “a provocative idea that just might work,” while Matt Lanza, a meteorologist in Houston, tweeted his endorsement of the “strong” idea.

In addition to eliminating the need to retire Greek names or invoke an alternate list, adopting this protocol would balance the distribution of hurricanes across the alphabet. As it stands, every season features an A-named storm, but few V- or W-named storms.

The World Meteorological Organization hasn’t said anything on plans to reconsider naming practices, but the Hurricane Center hinted that officials would be revisiting the issue at their post-hurricane season meeting in the spring.

“The WMO Region IV Committee will meet in Spring 2021,” wrote Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist and public affairs officer at the Hurricane Center. “Included in the agenda will be a discussion of the usage of the Greek alphabet, if/how a name would be retired from it, and what would be done going forward.”

There’s a chance that Eta and Iota could be retired after all.