It’s been a busy Monday for forecasters: Tropical Storms Teddy and Vicky emerged in the Atlantic. Soon after, Tropical Storm Sally was upgraded to the year’s seventh hurricane. Hurricane Paulette and Tropical Depression Rene are still out there. Now, five named systems are churning in the Atlantic basin simultaneously for the first time since 1971, Bay News 9 meteorologist Josh Linker said.
September is the peak of hurricane season, and 2020 has been an especially active year. In fact, there’s only one name left on the list of storms — Wilfred.
What happens if we run out of hurricane names?
The World Meteorological Organization keeps separate lists of storm names for the Atlantic, East North Pacific and Central North Pacific basins.
While there are 26 letters in the alphabet, each list consists of 21 alternating male and female names. For safety purposes, lists are supposed to include easily recognizable names. There aren’t enough well-known monikers starting with Q, U, X, Y and Z, so those letters are omitted.
On years that end in odd numbers, the list starts with a female name. Even years kick off with male names. The names are recycled every 6 years, though especially destructive storm names are retired.
If more than 21 named storms emerge in a season, meteorologists start naming storms after the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, and so on).
Only one other season had so many named cyclones that the Greek alphabet needed to be used. 2005 broke records for its number of devastating storms, including Katrina, Rita and Wilma. Six names from the Greek alphabet were used that year. But the Greek names didn’t start until October 22, 2005. And it’s the middle of September.
Why have there been so many named storms this year?
If you were to compare the atmospheric conditions to previous active years, not much is different, other than simply naming storms that wouldn’t have been named in the past, Linker explained.
“There seems to be a quicker response to pull the trigger on naming," he said.
Previously, certain systems would have been ignored or experts would have waited longer before naming a storm. There were 27 named storms in 2005, but we could have had 38 if we named them the way we do now, Linker said.
A number of factors caused an active hurricane season in 2020, explained National Weather Service meteorologist Rodney Wynn. There have been weaker tropical trade winds and warmer than average sea surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. The region has experienced reduced vertical wind shear, which allows more hurricanes to develop. There is an enhanced African Monsoon, where most of the Atlantic tropical systems are born (more activity over Africa brings more tropical activity). And finally, La Niña is developing in the coming months, which could further weaken the wind shear over the Atlantic and allow for storm development and intensification.
Tropical systems are named after reaching tropical storm strength, or 35 knots. Storms must have a low pressure area, be over the water and the tropics, and have a warm core to meet the tropical storm criteria, Linker said.
“The criteria to name a storm has not changed, but the National Hurricane Center now names more subtropical systems, which develop farther north than your typical tropical systems," Wynn wrote in an email.
“I think it’s to get people more aware,” he said. “I guess the word ‘tropical’ sticks out for a lot of people.”
Not only has 2020 experienced more named storms than usual — the naming is happening earlier. Most of the named storms this year broke records for being formed so early in the season.
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2020 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide
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