ORLANDO, Fla. – Earlier this month, the World Meteorological Organization announced Greek letters would no longer be used in identifying tropical storms and hurricanes.
The system has been used in only two seasons, accounting for six storms in 2005 and nine storms in 2020.
The system was done away with to avoid confusion in future seasons. The first introduction of the Greek lettering system fascinated many in 2005, which had never been used since the international, rotating alphabetic name system began in 1953.
But why and when did meteorologists decide Greek letters would be the backup plan?
The answer is, nobody knows.
A simple Google search turns up plenty of results about the recent news of the abolished Greek letter system. Some hits reveal how the 2020 season used Greek letters as well as the 2005 season.
But nothing regarding when it was decided Greek letters should be used.
A more formal search on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration site doesn’t yield background info on the system’s origin, either.
A look into old newspaper archives doesn’t reveal much, as well. Although there is an amusing anecdote from columnist Jack Burditt, of The Signal in Santa Clarita, Calif., who speculated in a November 2005 column how two meteorologists may have come up with the idea to use Greek letters.
Meteorologist 1: “What happens if we go through the alphabet?
Meteorologist 2: “I don’t know, go Greek.”
Meteorologist 1: “Who you calling geek, Poindexter?”
Meteorologist 2: “I said Greek. Use the Greek alphabet.”
Meteorologist 1: “That’s horrible. That’s the worst cookadoodee idea I’ve ever heard.”
Meteorologist 2: “Yeah, but you forget, it’s never going to happen. Now, do you want coffee or not?
Meteorologist 1: “Fine we’ll go Greek.” Takes a sip of coffee. “This is horrible. This is the worst cockadoodee coffee I’ve ever had.”
Burditt: “And that’s how Starbucks was created. OK, not really, but you try to make a conversation between two meteorologists interesting.”
Clearly, the idea to use Greek letters was not supported by everyone. Still, even turning to meteorologists doesn’t shed light on how long Greek letters were the backup plan.
Dennis Feltgen, spokesperson of the National Hurricane Center, was unclear as to its origins.
“I have checked with the long-timers here and no one knew,” Feltgen said.
The spokesmen suggested trying the WMO. Its spokesperson, Clare Nullis, also wasn’t sure.
“Sorry, we have also drawn a blank here. Nobody knows,” Nullis said.
The Greek letter system appeared from obscurity and apparently will not be missed as it fades into antiquity and hurricane seasons continue to spin on into the future.
The World Meteorological Organization’s annual Hurricane Committee meeting concluded that after exhausting the annual name list twice in the last 15 years, the Greek alphabet did more harm then good for several reasons.
First, experts found there can be too much focus on the use of Greek alphabet names and not the actual impacts from the storm, which can be distracting.
Second, the WMO found there can be confusion in translating Greek letters into other languages.
Third, some Greek letters, such as Zeta, Eta and Theta, are too similar in succession and also cause confusion.
“In 2020, this resulted in storms with very similar sounding names occurring simultaneously, which led to messaging challenges rather than streamlined and clear communication,” the WMO said in a press release.
Lastly, retired names can cause gaps in the alphabet and lead to further confusion. The current naming scheme uses six different lists that rotate every year. At the end of six years, the cycle begins again with the first list of names. It’s paired with a retirement system, decided by the WMO, when a storm caused egregious damage and death.
Hurricane Eta and Iota did just that in 2020, and are officially retired. The name “Laura” was also retired after the 2020 season, as was 2019’s “Dorian,” which would’ve been retired prior to the 2020 season, but wasn’t after the committee couldn’t meet last year due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Thus, in substitution for the Greek letters, the WMO will begin incorporating names from previously unused letters such as Q, U, X, Y and Z.
A supplemental list with the new letters will be made to accommodate additional storms and used every year. If any of those names are retired they will be replaced with additional names.