A Provocative Idea For Naming Atlantic Hurricanes That Just Might Work

Meteorologists like me are sitting in awe of the rapid intensification of yet another Greek-letter major hurricane approaching Central America. Hurricane Iota is a powerful storm that will make landfall Monday evening as a Category 4 or 5 storm. It will likely cause a humanitarian disaster in an already vulnerable region. The 2020 Atlantic Hurricane season has been record-breaking in many ways and has prompted some interesting questions:

  1. What happens if we run out of names on the list? (Use the Greek Alphabet)
  2. What happens if a Greek letter storm is significant enough to be retired? (Retire the name with the year, e.g. Iota-2020)
  3. What happens if we run out of a Greek letters? (Not likely, but crickets…)

I came across a provocative idea for naming hurricanes that just might work. I was so intrigued by the proposal that I felt like amplifying it.

The idea comes from my colleague Nate Johnson, a well-known meteorologist in the weather enterprise. Johnson is the Director of Weather Operations for NBCUniversal Owned TV Stations. However, he wears many other hats including President-Elect of the National Weather Association (NWA), member of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) Board on Societal Impacts, and panelist on the long-running, popular Podcast WeatherBrains. Johnson was also a broadcast meteorologist for many years so understands the challenges and value of effective weather communication. He agreed to allow me to summarize his thoughts posted on his social media pages this week but emphasized that he is speaking as an individual and not from the perspective of any of his affiliations.

What is the proposal? Johnson argues that more than one Greek-letter hurricane could be retired in 2020 (or in future years) so a naming system similar to what is used in some other basins (including the Central North Pacific, Western North Pacific, South China Sea), might be more appropriate. According to the National Hurricane Center, this Central North Pacific region, for example, employs multiple lists (below) and the names are used one after another. If the bottom of one list is used, the first name in the next is utilized.

Johnson believes that the six recycled lists for the Atlantic basin could be kept, but he tweeted, “don’t reset at the beginning of each year. Just pick back up where you left off last year, And if you have more storms, just move to the next list.” What if the storm is significant enough to be retired? He simply said, “Retire and replace the name. No Greek letters, no confusion about retirements, etc.”

Here is a snippet of my conversation with Nate Johnson about his idea.

Me: What is the advantage of your proposal?

Nate Johnson: We are familiar with it from other basins and it eliminates the prospect of “running out names. ” It also allows us formally retire any 2020 Greek letter named storms without the year and retires the concept of using Greek letter named storms. We also “load balance” the names over the entire domain of names rather than using the first part of the lists over and over while infrequently using the latter part of the lists. One hidden benefit is that it would also eliminate confusion if a storm formed late in the year and still existed into the next year.

Me: Ok, what about the disadvantages?

Nate Johnson: I really can’t think of any other than it is different and tracking charts would have to be reprinted. The new system would not allow for clear answer of how many named storms the Atlantic basin had in a given year but there are ways to figure that out.”

I think the idea has merit. People struggle with the Greek alphabet. I can’t tell you how many people asked me if Zeta was the last storm on the list earlier this year. Additionally, satellite observations and other technological advances are likely increasing the number of storms being named. This fact does not erase that climate change is also having an impact on tropical cyclones. According to numerous published studies, climate change is likely to lead to stronger tropical cyclones although it is not as clear about the frequency of storms. Either way, such factors could mean more named tropical cyclones, including storm names that would be retired.

Change is hard, and this proposal may not happen anytime soon (or at all). It will (and should) be evaluated and debated on Twitter, Facebook, professional meetings, and so forth. Ultimately, I suspect the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the National Hurricane Center would have to weight in. However, I am connected enough within the meteorological community to know that some pretty significant stakeholders believe that it is a good idea.

What do you think?

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