Eventful. Notable. Significant. These words can all describe 2020 in a nutshell, but they also aptly recount the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane season. At the time of this writing (November 11, 2020), NOAA’s National Hurricane Center (NHC) is currently issuing advisories on Tropical Storms Eta and Theta, while also monitoring an additional disturbance in the eastern Caribbean!
Though they are in charge of monitoring and forecasting tropical systems, the NHC actually does not control the naming of the storms. Instead, an international committee – the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) – established the list. We name tropical storms because experience has shown us that the history of short, distinctive names is easier and less subject to error than using cumbersome latitude-longitude identification methods. This greatly reduces confusion when two or more tropical systems occur at the same time – which has happened more than once this year! For example, one hurricane can be moving slowly westward in the Gulf of Mexico, while at exactly the same time another hurricane can be moving rapidly northward along the Atlantic coast. In the past, confusion and false rumors have arisen when storm advisories broadcast from radio stations were mistaken for warnings concerning an entirely different storm located hundreds of miles away.
The WMO maintains a rotating list of names for each Tropical Cyclone basin, and if a cyclone is particularly deadly or costly, then its name is retired and replaced by another one. The names are alphabetical (while excluding names that begin with Q, U, X, Y, and Z), and in the event that the entire alphabet is exhausted, we then turn to the Greek alphabet. The 2020 Atlantic season began early when Arthur formed on May 16, and we quickly cycled through the pre-determined list of 21 names when Wilfred formed on September 18. This marked only the second time in history that the NHC has ever had to move to using the Greek alphabet.
With the formation of Theta on November 9, the Atlantic has reached its most active season on record – with a little less than a month remaining. This breaks the previous record of the highest number of tropical/subtropical storms in a single year, which was set in 2005. Of the 29 named Atlantic storms this year, twelve have made landfall in the United States.
For those in Eta’s path, continue to monitor updates from your local National Weather Service office and the National Hurricane Center for the most up to date forecasts. Though the Atlantic hurricane season officially ends on November 30, additional storms could develop after that day. Forecasters at NOAA’s National hurricane Center will continuously monitor the tropics for storm development and activity, while working together with local offices when needed.