July 27, 2020

Get Ready To Learn How To Say "Isaias," The Atlantic Hurricane Season's Next Storm Name


This year's Atlantic hurricane season is off to a record start, giving us the most named storms we've ever recorded this early in the summer. The next name on the list for storms in the Atlantic is Isaias, which is pronounced exactly as it looks—ees-ah-EE-ahs.

Just about every meteorologist who's endeavored to teach their audiences how to say the next storm's name have been tagged by comment thread hotheads who are a-n-g-e-r-y that other languages exist, and the performative outrage is sure to spread once folks on the news start saying ees-ah-EE-ahs with every broadcast.

Admittedly, it's a bit tricky for native English speakers who aren't accustomed to the abundance of accented vowels in Romance languages like Spanish and Portuguese, but it's a quick and simple four syllables that are worth a few seconds to learn.

How'd we get here already?

We're eight names and five landfalls into the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season and the peak of the season is still more than a month away. The year began with Tropical Storm Arthur in the middle of May—more than two weeks before the start of the season—and kept going with several quick storms over the following weeks.

Thankfully, most of the storms were relatively weak and not long for this world. While we're way ahead of normal in raw numbers, we're not far off par for Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE), which is the best measure of the true intensity of a hurricane season.

The record pace at which we're knocking through storm names brings some attention to the very practice of naming storms itself. The attention is that much greater now that we're about to have a slightly tough-to-pronounce name that has the added bonus of whipping up Facebook's resident curmudgeons because it's not lazily pronounced the English way (eye-ZAY-us).

Tropical cyclone names for the world's ocean basins are maintained by the World Meteorological Organization, the agency within the United Nations that coordinates global standards in meteorology. It's important for this central organization to maintain the official list of names around the world or each country (and company...cough...) could assign its own name to each storm, creating a nightmare for communication and a breeding ground for confusion.

The Atlantic Ocean has six lists of names; each list is used once every six years. The current lists were introduced back in 1979. Each list is populated with names that alternate between masculine and feminine, omitting several letters at the end of the alphabet (Q, for instance) because there just aren't that many common names that begin with those letters.

Each name is drawn from suggestions submitted by countries that border the Atlantic Ocean. Since the countries around the Atlantic predominantly speak English, Spanish, and French, we wind up with a nice mix of names—Dolly, Gonzalo, Margot—that represent the different languages of the Atlantic Basin.

While we've been using the same batch of names for decades, many of the names have been swapped out from the originals due to retirements. The WMO holds an annual meeting to determine if any of the names deserve retirement because the storm was particularly destructive or deadly. Understandably, it'd be uncomfortable (and confusing!) to talk about another Hurricane Harvey rolling into the Gulf of Mexico, so they retired that name and replaced it with Harold for the list that'll be used again in 2023.

This year's list used to feature the names Gustav, Ike, and Paloma, all of which were retired after the destructive 2008 hurricane season. The WMO replaced those names with Gonzalo, Isaias, and Paulette, respectively, but we never got around to using Isaias or Paulette in 2014 due to the below-average activity in the Atlantic that year.

It's almost certain that we're going to see the first appearance of a storm named Isaias this year, a name drawn from the many Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries that border the Atlantic. It's ees-ah-EE-ahs, not eye-ZAY-us. It's clearer when it's written properly—Isaías, with the accent—but the official name lacks the accent for ease of use in official products. (It'd take a long time to issue products if meteorologists had to hit ALT+161 on their keyboard every time they want to type the í in Isaías.)

You can see the National Hurricane Center's pronunciation guide for all the names used in the Atlantic Ocean and eastern Pacific Ocean over at the agency's tropical cyclone naming page. Most of the other names used this season are straightforward; Laura is LOOR-uh instead of LAW-ruh, but I suppose that's a fight over accents as opposed to languages, in which case y'all just gotta fight that one out.


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I graduated from the University of South Alabama in 2014 with a degree in political science and a minor in meteorology. I ran Gawker's The Vane for two years and I've contributed to Mental Floss, Forbes, Popular Science, and the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang. I also teamed up with Outdoor Life to write a book called The Extreme Weather Survival Manual, which came out in October 2015.

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