The 2020 Hurricane Season Is a Turning Point in Human History

We’ve run out of letters to name our storms, and entered a brand-new, catastrophic era

Eric Holthaus
OneZero
Published in
8 min readSep 23, 2020

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A NOAA GOES-East satellite handout image of Hurricane Dorian (Cat. 5 storm) tracking towards the Florida taken Sept 1, 2019.
Photo: NOAA/Getty Images

On Friday, one of the most remarkable moments in recent meteorological history opened a window to our future.

A strengthening swirl of clouds spinning in the central Atlantic earned the name Tropical Storm Wilfred — exhausting the list of 21 alphabetical names given to Atlantic tropical cyclones by the Miami-based National Hurricane Center on the earliest date in history. And then Subtropical Storm Alpha was born off the coast of Portugal. At the same time, a “‘”medicane” — a Mediterranean hurricane — was approaching the Greek islands. And then, just a few hours later and 6,000 miles away, Tropical Storm Beta was named in the western Gulf of Mexico, forecasted to bring days of deluge to storm-weary shores. At no point in the 170 years of Atlantic basin weather history have so many strong storms formed so quickly.

In the Atlantic, tropical storms and hurricanes earn a name once they’ve reached an estimated maximum wind speed of at least 39 miles per hour — generally enough to cause an increased risk of damage from wind, heavy rain, and coastal flooding. If that storm strengthens further with winds of at least 74 miles per hour, it will become a hurricane. Since the 1970s, rapidly advancing weather satellites have helped identify weaker tropical storms more easily — as many as an additional four or five storms per year compared to 100 years ago — but in recent years, the growing numbers and intensity of tropical cyclones can’t be explained just by humans keeping a closer eye out for them.

For decades, meteorologists have worked to understand the impact that a warming climate has on tropical cyclones, which are some of the most intense and deadly weather events our Earth can produce. And this year is only the second time in history that meteorologists ran out of names on their list for Atlantic tropical cyclones. When this happens, according to the World Meteorological Organization, the procedure is to turn to the Greek alphabet for alternatives. The only time this has ever been necessary was in 2005, and so far 2020 is running more than a month ahead of even that breakneck pace.

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