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Next up for 2020: We're running out of hurricane names

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GOES-16 Satellite image shows Hurricane Sally near Florida along with Tropical Storms Paulette, Rena, Teddy and Vicky. (NOAA Image)

Good thing the Greeks had their own alphabet...

Hurricane forecasters are about to run into a problem that has only cropped up once before: We're about to run out of entries on the list of hurricane names in 2020.

Each year the World Meteorological Organization publishes a list of 21 names in alphabetical order to use for storms that reach at least tropical storm strength in the Atlantic Ocean, leaving out some of the more challenging letters like "Q" and "U" and "X, Y and Z".

As of Monday, the National Hurricane Center has used 20 of them with the recent developments of Tropical Storms Teddy and Vicky, having 5 named storms in the Atlantic at the same time for the first time since 1971. All that's left on the list is Wilfred and the way this tropical season is going, it might be developing as you read this.

But what happens when you have more than 21 storms in a season? We borrow from the Greek. Starting with storm No. 22, we restart with the Greek Alphabet: Tropical Storm Alpha, then Beta, Gamma, etc...

This has only happened one time before -- during the active season of 2005. But Tropical Storm Alpha didn't even form that year until October 22nd.

We are just now entering the peak of hurricane season -- late September into October when the ocean waters are their warmest (as there is a lag time in the heating of the ocean from the summer heat) and here we are a solid five weeks ahead of that pace.

That crazy 2005 season make it down six letters of the Greek Alphabet with Tropical Storm Zeta forming just before the year ended. Will we get to the record Eta? Or Theta? Kappa or Lamda? There are 24 Greek letters in their alphabet so let's hope we don't need a Plan C.

What happens if a "Greek-named" storm is so bad it needs to be retired?

While Greek alphabet names have been used once before, none of those six storms were severe enough to warrant retiring its name like we do with other traditionally named storms that cause great destruction (such as "Katrina" or "Michael") so as to not cause confusion in subsequent years when that name could come up again.

So what happens if, say, Hurricane Beta wreaks havoc? The World Meteorological Organization says after much discussion, they have decided that such a storm would be noted on the retired name list with the year it was "retired" but the name would continue to be used since they expect it will be a rare instance to use names this far down the chart.