Last year’s hurricane season, the busiest on record, was only the second time the Greek alphabet was used to name storms as the standard list of names had been exhausted by mid-September. It will also be the last year this happens.
The World Meteorological Organization’s Hurricane Committee – at its regional annual meeting last week – announced it would no longer be using the Greek alphabet to name storms, “because it creates a distraction from the communication of hazard and storm warnings and is potentially confusing”.
Two of last year’s Greek-named storms, Eta and Iota, would have been retired from the name list anyway as they were deemed to have been so destructive that they would not be used again. Dorian and Laura are also being retired as storm names.
Dorian, a category 5 hurricane, was the strongest hurricane to hit the Bahamas in modern records. It caused damage estimated at US$3.4 billion, and left 29,500 people homeless and/or jobless. Dexter will replace Dorian on the list of names in 2025.
Laura was a category 4 hurricane that made landfall near Cameron, Louisiana. It was responsible for 47 direct deaths in the United States and Hispaniola, and more than $19 billion in damage. Leah will replace Laura on the 2026 list of names.
Eta and Iota made landfall less than two weeks apart in November, in the same area of the Nicaraguan coast, south of Puerto Cabezas. Both storms caused extensive flooding in Nicaragua, Honduras and other Central American countries, resulting in at least 272 fatalities and damage losses of more than US$9 billion.
Cayman did not suffer any major damage during the 2020 hurricane season, although the jurisdiction had a near miss with Eta on 7 Nov., when the storm passed within 50 miles of Grand Cayman, bringing heavy rains that flooded local streets, and strong winds that downed trees and electricity poles across the island.
At its regional meeting on 13-15 March, held virtually this year due to COVID-19 restrictions, the WMO’s Hurricane Committee, which serves North America, Central America and the Caribbean, discussed the formation of named storms prior to the official start of the hurricane season on 1 June.
Cayman was represented on the committee by the director general of the Cayman Islands National Weather Service John Tibbetts, who serves as the adviser to Arlene Laing, official delegate to the World Meteorological Organization for the British Caribbean Territories.
The committee will hold a follow-up meeting on 4-5 May.
Bye bye, Greek
The first time the Greek alphabet was called into use after the main list was exhausted due to the frequency of storms was in 2005, where the last named storm of the hurricane season was Zeta, the sixth letter of the Greek alphabet. In 2020, the last named storm was Iota, the ninth letter of the alphabet. In all, there were 30 named storms in 2020.
The Greek alphabet list – used to supplement the annual list once that was exhausted – will be replaced with another back-up list of names, which will include all the letters of the alphabet apart from Q, U, X, Y and Z, as is the practice with the standard list.
Names on the new supplemental list can be retired and replaced, when required, the Hurricane Committee stated in a press release issued following the regional meeting.
It gave a number of reasons for its decision to do away with the Greek names, including the observation that there had been too much focus on the use of the Greek alphabet names rather than impacts from the storm, which can “greatly detract from the needed impact and safety messaging”. The committee also stated that there is often confusion with some Greek alphabet names when translated into other languages used within the region.
It noted too that the pronunciation of several of the Greek letters (Zeta, Eta, Theta) are similar and occur in succession, and in 2020 this resulted in storms with very similar sounding names occurring simultaneously, “which led to messaging challenges rather than streamlined and clear communication”.
The new supplemental list, to replace the Greek alphabet names, are as follows:
Currently, there are six lists (not including the new supplemental list) of pre-determined names that are used on rotation for identifying Atlantic hurricanes each season. These lists are maintained and updated by the WMO.
The 2021 main list of storm names are:
The 2020 hurricane season broke several records, including:
- Most named storms – 30 (previous record: 28 in 2005);
- Most major hurricanes forming after 1 Oct. – Four, namely Delta, Epsilon, Eta and Iota (previous record: two in several years);
- Latest formation of a category 5 hurricane in November – Hurricane Iota on 16 Nov. (previous record: 8 Nov. by the 1932 hurricane that devastated the Cayman Islands);
- Most storms formed in September – 10 (previous record: eight in 2002, 2007 and 2010).