The 2020 hurricane season was so prolific that the National Hurricane Center used up its roster of 21 alphabetized storm names. When that happens, the government pulls in the Greek alphabet. But don't expect to see Hurricane Alpha or Beta again.
Turns out the names were Greek to a lot of people, and forecasters worried about creating confusion.
"Some of those were very difficult to translate into other languages," says Kenneth Graham of the National Hurricane Center. "In our region we have French. We have Portuguese, Spanish and English."
Nine tropical storms used the Greek alphabet in the record-breaking 2020 Atlantic hurricane season. That's deeper into the Greek alphabet than the National Hurricane Center has ever had to go.
"The Greek letters, we don't have to use them much, but we don't need any sort of distraction" from communicating storm warnings, he says. For example, Graham says, with Hurricane Zeta — the sixth letter of the Greek alphabet — "there were so many phone calls and inquiries" because people incorrectly thought it was the last letter.
"Those [names] have to be as pronounceable as we can in all the languages, not offensive in any language, and really we don't want any of those to have alternate meanings," he says.
Greek letters were used once before — in 2005, Graham says, after another busy storm season ripped through the names on the government's list.
"We have a list that rotates every six years — a standing list that repeats," Graham says. Storms that cause great damage and fatalities can have their names retired and replaced, like Katrina in 2005 and Dorian in 2019.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There were 30 named storms in last year's Atlantic hurricane season, which gave the world yet another reason to chalk up 2020 as a disaster.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: We begin with breaking news tonight from the Gulf Coast - Hurricane Hanna slamming into the Texas shore.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Teddy is a big boy this afternoon - winds now up to 140 miles per hour.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Overnight, the slow-moving Hurricane Sally grinding toward shore.
MARTIN: For the National Hurricane Center and its director, Ken Graham, it was historic.
KEN GRAHAM: What a record, a record season, the most we've recorded in 170 years of record keeping.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
In fact, there were so many storms that the usual list of alphabetized names for storms was too short.
GRAHAM: We have a list that rotates every six years, so that's a standing list that repeats. So if we run out of names - and that's only happened twice, 2005 and 2020...
INSKEEP: Forecasters turned then to the Greek alphabet.
GRAHAM: So we had Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, Zeta, Eta, Theta, all in a row, and we had Iota.
INSKEEP: (Laughter) Not one iota of difference between one storm and another, it would seem after a while. But the names got confusing, and people started mixing up the storms.
GRAHAM: Some of those were very difficult to translate into other languages. In our region, we have French, we have Portuguese, Spanish and English. You know, those names have to be as pronounceable as we can in all the languages, not offensive in any language and, really, we don't want any of those to have any alternate meanings.
MARTIN: Difficult challenge. On the advice of the World Meteorological Organization, Greek letters will no longer be used to name hurricanes. Forecasters this year will have a supplemental list of names to choose from, from Adria (ph) to Will, just in case.
(SOUNDBITE OF ...OF SINKING SHIPS' "IT'S EASIER WITH NO DESTINATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.