WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

New Protocol for Greek Letters?

Posted July 17, 2006 12:34 p.m. EDT

With the slower start to this year's hurricane season so far, and forecasts for something like 13-16 named storms on the season, it appears unlikely we'll again have to start naming storms using the Greek alphabet as was the case in 2005, when we reached the 5th letter in that list upon the formation of Tropical Storm Zeta in December.

An issue that came up after the season ended was the question "what if a Greek letter storm was bad enough that retirement was necessary?" We just missed dealing with that situation last year, as Wilma turned out to be a storm that rated retirement. However, in retrospect there was an earlier Subtropical Storm that should have been named but was not. Had it received a name, then the storm that was called Wilma would have been Alpha instead.

Up through last season, the idea of how to handle a retirment-worthy "greek letter" storm simply hadn't been addressed, and no procedure was in place for such an eventuality. However, according to a small item in the latest Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, the World Meteorological Organization committee responsible for Atlantic storm names decided on a protocol during its annual meeting this Spring. If a greek letter storm warrants retirement, it will be recognized in the retired storms list in combination with the year it occurred, but the letter itself will remain available for future use. For example, if a Hurricane Beta was to cause significant damage and/or numerous deaths this year, it could be added to the retired list, along with Hazel, Fran, Floyd and other retired names from the past, as "Beta2006," and Beta would remain available to use again if needed.

This is a simple, straighforward way to deal with the issue, and it's likely that even with the cycle of Atlantic hurricane numbers in a high mode for possibly the next decade or two, it will rarely be put to use. However, it does beg the question of whether the entire the entire hurricane naming system could be hugely simplified (though maybe not with as much emotional impact, since it would no longer anthropomorphize the storms) by applying the same convention to all systems. That is, each year we would have T.S. A2006, Hurricane B2006, Hurricane A2007, Hurricane B2007, etc. They would be clearly identified and easily tracked as they are now, but neither six-year rotating name lists nor retirements/replacements would be required, and all letters of the alphabet could be used (currently Q, U, X, Y and Z are not used due to the dearth of names available). On the other hand, there would no longer be any reference to the storms as "he" or "she," and they might revert to being thought of simply as impressive and sometimes destructive weather systems, rather than something akin to living creatures…