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Greek letters ‘will never be used again’ to name hurricanes

They’re ‘distracting and confusing,’ says the World Meteorological Organization

An El Salvadorian rescue team member navigates through the...
An El Salvadorian rescue team member navigates through a flooded street. Hurricane Iota hit the Nicaraguan coast on November 16th as a Category 4 storm. It was the second Category 4 to make landfall in Nicaragua within two weeks and again brought catastrophic rainfall into Honduras after Hurricane Eta.
Photo by Seth Sidney Berry / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

Greek letters will no longer be used to name tropical cyclones in the Atlantic, the World Meteorological Association (WMO) announced today. “The Greek alphabet will never be used again as it was distracting and confusing,” the WMO tweeted.

The WMO also retired the names of three especially devastating hurricanes from the 2020 season: Laura, Eta, and Iota. The name Dorian, from the 2019 Atlantic hurricane season, was retired as well. The decision was made this week during a meeting of the WMO’s Hurricane Committee. They meet every year to determine which storms caused so much damage and death during the last hurricane season that they should be removed from rotating lists of storm names. 2019 names were also discussed this year because the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted last year’s meeting.

Alphabetical lists of names for Atlantic tropical cyclones repeat every six years. There are 21 names per list, and names that have been retired are replaced with names that start with the same letter. In the past, the Greek alphabet was used when there were more storms in a single hurricane season than names on the list. That’s only happened twice, in 2005 and 2020. Last year’s Atlantic hurricane season was the most active on record. Back in 2006, the committee “agreed that it was not practical” to retire Greek names because they’re used so infrequently. If the committee had stuck to their 2006 decision, then this year, Eta and Iota would have remained in rotation, but “Eta 2020” and “Iota 2020” would be added to the list of retired names.

Eta and Iota forced the WMO to reconsider those plans. Together, the storms killed 272 people and caused $9 billion in damages across Central America. “There was no formal plan for retiring Greek names, and the future use of these names would be inappropriate,” it said in its statement. This is the first time that any Greek letters have been retired.

The WMO gave a list of more reasons why it’s now decided to abandon the Greek alphabet altogether. Use of the Greek alphabet generated a lot of headlines in 2020 because it was so rare, but that took attention away from the actual impacts of the storms, the WMO said. On top of that, the names can be confusing when translated to other languages. Similar-sounding letters — Zeta, Eta, and Theta — also caused some miscommunication.

The WMO decided to replace the Greek alphabet with a supplemental list of names. Like the standard list of names, that supplemental list will also be based on the modern English alphabet, excluding Q, U, X, Y, and Z. The WMO said in a press release that names starting with those letters are “not common enough or easily understood in local languages to be slotted into the rotating lists.”

Dexter will replace the name Dorian. Dorian struck the Bahamas as a devastating Category 5 storm, damaging 75 percent of all the homes on the Abaco and eastern Grand Bahama Islands. The name Leah will replace Laura. Hurricane Laura was responsible for 47 deaths and more than $19 billion in destruction in the US and Hispaniola.