Saturday, March 27, 2021

Still Life with Robin: It's All Greek to Me - But Why Is That a Problem?


Hurricane Zeta - National Weather Service

by Peggy Robin

Sometimes there are problems that get solved before we even knew there was a problem. Did you know about the problem of late season hurricane names?

In a busy hurricane season, if there are more named hurricanes than the internationally approved list of 21 names for that year (which runs from A to W – leaving out Q, X, Y, & Z), the “extra” hurricanes are called the letters of the Greek alphabet: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, Zeta, Eta, Theta, Iota, Kappa, Lambda, Mu, Nu, Xi, Omicron, Pi, Rho, Sigma, Tau, Upsilon, Phi, Chi Psi, Omega.

Last year’s hurricane season was one of the longest and busiest ever, tearing through the 21 names from Arthur (May 16 2020 – that’s two weeks before the official start of hurricane season on June 1!) to Wilfred by September 17, 2020. The first Greek alphabet named hurricane, Alpha, began that same day, September 17, and the Greek-letter-named hurricanes raced through the first half of the Greek alphabet, until the final one, Iota, on November 13 2020.

So what was the problem? It wasn’t a shortage of Greek letters! It was that too many people don’t know the Greek alphabet and were confused by the sequence. When we got to Hurricane Zeta, the SIXTH letter of the Greek alphabet, lots of people assumed, since Zeta starts with a Z, that it must be the equivalent of the Z in our alphabet, and we’d already run out of Greek letters. So when Hurricane Eta came along on November 1, 2020, a week after Hurricane Zeta, people were calling up the National Weather Service and NOAA to complain, “Hey, Zeta was supposed to be the end!”

Greek alphabet illiteracy -- THAT was the problem. To quote the greatest Floridian ever (Dave Barry), “I am NOT making this up!”

Clearly, there’s been a decline in classical education: not enough people knowing their Greek letters. You would think people would at least be familiar with that resounding phrase from the New Testament, “I am the Alpha and the Omega” – that is to say, the beginning and the end. But no!. The confusion was bad enough to spur the World Meteorological Organization to give up the Greek letter naming scheme and switch to a set of second-string girls’ and boys’ names.

So here we are, a few months away from Hurricane Season 2021, with a whole B-list of hurricanes names to use after the A-list runs out.

Here are the 2021 hurricane/tropical storm names that will need to be used up first:
Ana, Bill, Claudette, Danny, Elsa, Fred, Grace, Henri, Ida, Julian, Kate, Larry, Mindy, Nicholas, Odette, Peter, Rose, Sam, Teresa, Victor, Wanda

And here’s the list of Hurricane Round 2 names if we get more hurricanes after Wanda (which we will! In this era of climate-change-fueled intensified weather phenomena, you can make book on it):
Adria, Braylen , Caridad, Deshawn, Emery, Foster, Gemma, Heath, Isla, Jacobus, Kenzie, Lucio, Makayla, Nolan, Orlanda, Pax, Ronin, Sophie, Tayshaun, Viviana, Will

I may be cementing my reputation as a curmudgeon, but I have to call the dumbing down of late season hurricane names a bad thing -- a symptom of alphabetical laziness, an unwillingness to make people memorize a set of foreign letters. They’re not even that unfamiliar, as we’ve seen them used in everyday math and science -- not to mention fraternities and sororities. Is it really too much to ask for people to remember that after zeta comes eta?

If you’d like to learn the Greek alphabet the easy way, here’s a little song you can get stuck in your head: 

Of course, now that the Greek alphabet is no longer in use during the hurricane season, you may wonder, what’s the use of learning the order now? Pure knowledge! And you may want to join me in my (undoubtedly fruitless) campaign to BRING BACK THE GREEK LETTERS!

Still Life with Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays.   

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