for National Geographic News
To get a sense of just how turbulent the 2005 hurricane season has been, consider this: Forecasters may soon exhaust their list of pre- selected names.
Each year 21 common names are reserved for tropical storms. There are just four left for 2005: Stan, Tammy, Vince, and Wilma. After that, they go Greekas in letters of the Greek alphabet: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and so on.
Hurricane season doesn't officially end for another six weeks, on November 30. Seventeen named tropical storms have already formed in the Atlantic Ocean. The heart of the most recent storm, Rita, is due to strike the U.S. Gulf Coast in the next 24 hours.
Forecasters expect more tropical storms to form in the weeks ahead, making it one of the busiest hurricane seasons on record.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) most recent update to this year's hurricane forecast calls for 18 to 21 named storms.
"They've been right eight years out of eight," said Frank Lepore, a spokesperson for the National Hurricane Center. "I don't know if I'd take a bet on things going over. But it might, and it would be another thing to talk about for the history books."
Never before have meteorologists been forced to resort to the Greek alphabet in their attempts to keep track of tropical storms. Alpha would be a first, according to Mark Oliver, a spokesperson for the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva, Switzerland.
According to Oliver, methods for naming tropical storms vary around the world. In the Pacific, for example, tropical cyclones are denoted by animal, flower, and some people names, he said.
In the United States, the convention of giving hurricanes common names began in 1951, when officials started using the phonetic alphabetAble, Baker, Charlie, and so onas a way to identify storms more easily than cumbersome longitude-latitude coordinates.
Two years later a new international phonetic alphabet confused matters. So U.S. officials switched to common female first names. Sensitive to the women's rights movement, the government added male names to the mix for Atlantic storms in 1979.
Today six lists of 21 names are used in rotation for Atlantic tropical storms. The names flow in alphabetical order, alternating between male and female. The letters q, u, x, y, and z are skipped, because a limited number of short, distinctive first names begin with these letters.
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