MIAMI – Hurricane Alpha? Tropical Storm Epsilon? Before this year is out, TV forecasters and coastal residents may have to break out their Greek dictionaries if the Atlantic hurricane season keeps up its frantic pace.
There are only four names left for tropical storms and hurricanes this year: Stan, Tammy, Vince and Wilma. After that, names switch to the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet (search): Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and so on through Omega, if needed.
That has never happened before in roughly 60 years of regularly named Atlantic storms.
"If we get up into that league, we'll have issues larger than naming these storms," said Frank Lepore, spokesman for the National Hurricane Center (search) in Miami. "The new phrase will be hurricane fatigue. Let's coin that right now."
So far this season, there have been 17 named storms. Forecasters expect a total of 18 to 21 when the six-month season ends Nov. 30. But with conditions in the atmosphere and Atlantic ripe for storm development, there could be more.
Currently, there are six separate 21-name lists and each of them is used every six years in a rotation. They don't include names that begin with q, u, x, y and z because there aren't enough names starting with those letters.
Only once, since record-keeping began in 1851, have there been 21 tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic. That was in 1933 when forecasters didn't regularly name storms.
What's more, a storm name is retired if it causes widespread damage and deaths. So if there is a deadly Hurricane Alpha, what is it replaced with when it's retired?
"It will go to the Swahili alphabet or something else," joked Jim Lushine, severe weather expert at the National Weather Service (search) in Miami.
Actually, when old names are retired, new names have to be drafted in to a database maintained specifically for Atlantic Ocean storms, said Mark Oliver, spokesman for the World Meteorological Organization (search) in Geneva, Switzerland, which maintains the database.
"There's certain specifications which they have to meet," Oliver said. "They have to be fairly easily remembered, they've got to be in alphabetical order."
Other regions take a different approach. In Asia, storms may be given names of people, but also of flowers or other non-human beings, Oliver said. Japan does not participate in this system, preferring instead to number each storm chronologically starting anew each year.
For several hundred years, damaging hurricanes were named after the saint's day when the storm hit. For example, there was Hurricane Santa Ana (search) which hit Puerto Rico on July 26, 1825. According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, there are saint's days for about a third to a half of all days.
Then, Australian meteorologist Clement Wragge began giving women's names to tropical storms before the end of the 19th century, according to the National Weather Service.
During World War II, storm naming became more common, especially among Air Force and Navy meteorologists who tracked storms over the Pacific Ocean, the weather service said.
From 1950 to 1952, the United States named storms by a phonetic alphabet, starting with Able, Baker and Charlie. That became confusing because the same names were used each year, so female names were used starting in 1953 in a list created by the National Hurricane Center. The first one was called Tropical Storm Alice (search).
That was considered biased against women, so men's names were added in 1978 in the Pacific and a year later in the Atlantic, with Hurricane Bob.