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We’re Running Out of Names for Hurricanes in 2020

Earlier this year, we reported that experts were predicting that 2020 would be a prolific year for hurricanes. As we approach the peak of the year’s hurricane season, they’re running out of names for storms. As five systems are simultaneously developing in the Atlantic basin for the first time since 1971 and only the second time in recorded history, it’s likely meteorologists will quickly use the last storm name on this year’s list: Wilfred

How Are Hurricane Names Selected?

While many people are familiar with the process of assigning common names to hurricanes, they don’t always know that those names are always preselected by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Each year, the WMO creates an alphabetical list of names. When a storm system reaches the right strength, it gets the next unused name on that year’s list. Notably, the list excludes five letters that don’t commonly start a name.

What Happens When Storms Get Through the Alphabet?

Once a storm is strong enough to assume the last name on the WMO’s alphabetical list, the system switches to the Greek alphabet. In other words, there are 24 more names that are available for storms this year, starting with Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta.

Why Does Reaching the Greek Alphabet Matter?

Only one other year—2005—has had so many storms that meteorologists have needed to switch to the Greep alphabet. This year was historic because it had record-setting storms—Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma made landfall that season. Notably this historically severe hurricane season requires a switch of alphabets in late October. We’ll likely need to switch alphabets by the middle of September. Historically, there are only 1-3 names stormed each month until November.

Weather experts are partially blaming La Niña for the busy hurricane season. La Niña describes when waters of the ocean are cooled. It also helps create hurricanes by producing the pockets of vertical warm air that develops into hurricanes.

"So, El Niño, via its impacts on vertical wind shear, has a stronger impact on September and especially October hurricanes than it does on August hurricanes. With La Niña, vertical wind shear tends to be lower, and consequently, we end up with more active late seasons," said Phil Klotzbach, a researcher at Colorado State University.