Officials May Run Out of Hurricane Names This Year

John Roach
for National Geographic News
September 23, 2005
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 Greek—as 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.

Naming Conventions

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 alphabet—Able, Baker, Charlie, and so on—as 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.

The lists are on a six-year rotation. Names used in 2005 year will not be seen again until 2011. Some names, however, may never be used again.

Hurricane Retirement

The World Meteorological Organization can retire the names of hurricanes that deal a deadly blow to people or economies. The UN body now maintains and updates the lists of named storms around the globe.

Technically, retirement lasts just ten years, long enough to facilitate insurance claims, lawsuits, and the like. In reality, however, the names of the fiercest storms may never be reused. Consider Camille, the Category Five storm that devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1969.

Although no official decision has yet been made, the retirement of Katrina is a "fair bet," said Lepore, the National Hurricane Center spokesperson.

And Rita?

"I think probably so," Lepore speculated. "This storm is going into a major petrochemical production area … so the issue is not just the impact on people, but also the [economy]," he said.

And if a Hurricane Alpha blows up later this year and causes widespread destruction, says Oliver of the World Meteorological Association, it, too, will be retired.

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