There have been so many hurricanes this year that we've almost run out of names
TORONTO -- In a very 2020 turn of events, there have been so many hurricanes and tropical storms in the Atlantic this year that we’ve almost run out of names for them, something that has only happened once before, in 2005.
There are 21 names allotted for storms in the Atlantic basin each year. This year, only one name on the list hasn’t been given to a storm yet: Wilfred.
It’s been a busy year for storms. Currently, no fewer than five tropical cyclones are churning in the Atlantic basin. Hurricanes Sally and Paulette were followed by Tropical Storms Rene, Teddy and Vicky, the latter of which is the second last name on the storm name list.
So what happens when we run out of storm names? And what does it mean that we’ve gone through them so fast?
HOW A HURRICANE GETS ITS NAME
According to the U.S.-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), hurricanes and storms are named after people because it’s clearer for communication than describing the storms by their longitude and latitude, which used to be the go-to method.
Between 1953 and 1978, storms were exclusively given female names in the U.S., but male names were introduced in 1978. Now, male and female names alternate on the list for each year.
The World Meterological Organization (WMO) chooses which names are storm-worthy. For Atlantic hurricanes, an international committee put together six lists of 21 names, which are then rotated so that one list is repeated every seventh year.
Each list is broadly alphabetical — the first three storms of the 2020 season, for instance, were Arthur, Bertha and Cristobal — but it skips the letters Q, U, X, Y and Z, simply because there aren’t a lot of names that start with those letters.
“In the interests of safety, names must be easily recognizable,” the WMO states on its website. “In addition, they have to reflect a balance between French, Spanish, and English names due to the geographical coverage of the storms throughout the Atlantic and Caribbean.”
If a hurricane causes a particularly high level of destruction, either to humans or to property, the name is retired out of respect to victims and in order not to cause inappropriate confusion in the future.
In 2005, one of the deadliest years for Atlantic hurricanes in recorded history, five names were retired: Dennis, Katrina, Rita, Stan and Wilma.
That same year is also the only year on record where there were so many hurricanes that they exceeded the allotted 21 names.
If there are ever more than 21 named tropical cyclones in the Atlantic basin within one season, they receive names from the Greek alphabet (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, etc.), meaning there are enough names for 24 more storms. In 2005, six names from the Greek alphabet had to be used for storms.
Since the official storm season extends until Nov. 30, and we’ve already had 20 named storms in the Atlantic so far in 2020, it’s highly likely that we’ll soon be seeing some tropical storms with Greek names.
According to the NOAA, the peak of hurricane season for the Atlantic Basin is mid-August to late October.
WHAT THIS YEAR’S TROPICAL STORM SEASON MEANS
While the majority of 2020’s tropical storms and hurricanes have been relatively weak compared to some other years — 2019 had two Category 5 hurricanes, for example — the speed with which they have been forming is not exactly reassuring.
When a tropical depression evolved into Tropical Storm Vicky on Monday, it became not only the 20th named storm of the 2020 season, but the earliest that the 20th storm has ever arrived, beating out 2005’s Tropical Storm Tammy by 21 days.
An April 2020 forecast released by Tropical Storm Risk (TSR), a U.K.- based research organization that tracks tropical storms and hurricanes, predicted that Atlantic hurricane activity in 2020 would be 25 per cent above the long-term norms of storm activity from 1950 - 2019.
That number jumped to 30 per cent above norm in their pre-season forecast released on May 28.
Of the 20 storms in the Atlantic to achieve named status from WMO in 2020, 13 have been tropical storms and seven have reached hurricane status.
Hurricane Laura has been the largest Atlantic storm so far in 2020, and the only one to be considered a major hurricane. It had already killed around two dozen people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic before it made landfall in Louisiana as a Category 4 hurricane on Aug. 27. The storm killed 25 people in the state, and left thousands without water or power.
In recent years, natural disasters, wildfires and storms have become more and more frequent and intense, one of the dangerous side effects of a climate crisis that has largely gone unaddressed by governments worldwide.
A NASA study from 2018 stated that the global warming of tropical waters could cause a “substantial increase in the frequency of extreme rain storms by the end of the century.”
Another study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences just this June found that the probability of tropical cyclones turning into major storms was increasing by eight per cent every decade.
And scientists believe that these disasters are only going to become more frequent in the future as human-driven climate change worsens.
"It's going to get A LOT worse," Georgia Tech climate scientist Kim Cobb said last week in an Associated Press report. "I say that with emphasis because it does challenge the imagination.
"A year like 2020 could have been the subject of a marvelous science fiction film in 2000," Cobb added. "Now we have to watch and digest real-time disaster after disaster after disaster, on top of a pandemic. The outlook could not be any more grim. It's just a horrifying prospect."