BY DAVID FLESHLER
SOUTH FLORIDA SUN SENTINEL/TNS
FORT LAUDERDALE — Late-season hurricanes will no longer carry baffling Greek names like Zeta and Theta.
The Greek alphabet will be dropped as a source of hurricane names for busy seasons like last year’s, when the supply of proper names was exhausted, the World Meteorological Organization announced Wednesday.
And say goodbye and good riddance to Dorian and Laura, two names that will be permanently retired, following the tradition of avoiding the repetition of names of particularly destructive storms. Added to the list were Dexter and Leah.
Greek letters, used in last year’s horrific storm season, were ditched for being confusing. Reporters and public officials mispronounced them. Too many letters, such as Zeta and Theta, sounded similar. Forecasters found themselves fielding questions from the media and public about the use of Greek letters rather than about the storms themselves.
“There was so much focus on the Greek alphabet names,” said Ken Graham, director of the National Hurricane Center, who chairs the World Meteorological Organization’s hurricane committee. “Sometimes the actual impacts from the storm were lost.”
History of names
The widespread use of proper names for hurricanes dates to World War II when Army and Navy meteorologists took to assigning storms the names of wives and girlfriends.
Before that, hurricanes were typically named for the places they hit or for significant dates, such as the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 that destroyed the Florida Keys railroad.
The practice of using proper names was formalized after the war, with responsibility for choosing them given to a committee of the World Meteorological Organization. The exclusive use of female names ended in 1978. Greek names have been used for occasions when the year’s assigned proper names are used up, as happened last season.
“I think it makes sense,” said Philip Klotzbach, research scientist for Colorado State University’s Tropical Meteorology Project. “The Greek naming system has always been kind of confusing.”
Earlier start date?
When the names reached Zeta, last year, for example, some people may have thought the season had reached its end, since that letter begins with Z, Klotzbach said. In fact, there would be three more storms, including Category 4 Eta and a Category 5 Iota.
Since 1953, 93 names have been retired.
Also discussed was the question of whether to have an earlier start date for hurricane season, in light of the experience of the past few years, when storms that have formed before the current start date of June 1.
Graham said the question needs further study. One issue is whether the change would be scientifically justified, whether the surge in early storms reflects a permanent change.
Another question is whether such a move would reduce preparedness, since that would move the start of the season further from the season’s peak in August and September, which sees the vast majority of storms.
“We’re putting together a team to look at it,” he said. “I want some data before making this big decision.”