BI Answers: How do winter storms get their names?
Less than a month after Hurricane Sandy felled trees, knocked out power lines, and smashed homes along the stretch of coastline from Maryland to Massachusetts, another storm was barreling towards the northeast.
Days later, the entire region was coated in a record-breaking layer of thick snow.
For the first time in history, The Weather Channel decided to name the winter storm. They called it Athena, for the Greek goddess of warfare. (She’s also the goddess of courage, civilisation, inspiration, law, wisdom, and justice, but we’re pretty sure these aren’t what TWC had in mind when they came up with the moniker.)
“A storm with a name is easier to follow,” TWC’s CEO, Tom Niziol, wrote on its website, “which will mean fewer surprises and more preparation.”
With the majority of the region still heaving from Sandy’s effects, Niziol said, it was important to make announcements about a second storm clear and simple. Sounds pretty reasonable, right?
Wrong. Naming winter storms is a big no-no, at least as far as the National Weather Service is concerned.
Shortly after TWC’s announcement, the NWS issued a press release stating it would not recognise any of TWC’s names for winter storms; the agency also sent out an internal memo advising its staff to “please refrain from using the term Athena in any of our products.”
Why All The Fuss Over A Name?
At first glance, it seems like it should have been no big deal. The Weather Channel named the storm because they thought it would make it easier for people to protect themselves from its effects.
Whenever an announcement was made about incoming winds or severe temperatures associated with the storm, they could shout out the name Athena. Anyone listening would know instantly that the information was related to a bigger pattern of events; one that could be severe and long-lasting.
This same idea is what inspired the government to start naming tropical storms for the first time in the early 1900s. The naming system worked so well that it became official policy in 1953. For nearly three decades, every Atlantic tropical storm was named using a database kept by the National Hurricane Center. The original list featured only women’s names, but men’s were added in 1979.
We’ve been doing this for hurricanes and tropical storms for years. Why not do the same for winter storms?
Here’s the problem: Hurricanes and winter storms are radically different tempests, and lumping them in together can be misleading. Only about 100 hurricanes happen every year across the globe, New York University Center of Atmosphere Ocean Science professor Olivier Pauluis told us. By contrast, winter storms can be thought of as including all of our “bad weather” days — times when it’s extra windy or raining heavily, said Pauluis.
The difference between a hurricane and winter storm is a lot easier to see via satellite. While hurricanes have a single, well-defined center (the eye) that the rest of the storm rotates around — meaning they often follow a pattern that meteorologists can track — winter storms can have multiple centres that move and shift dramatically.
Each beast forms differently, too. While winter storms develop when there’s a large temperature gap between two blobs of air, hurricanes form near the equator when the heat from warm ocean waters combines with powerful winds to create large water droplets.
Those droplets condense into thick columns of clouds, which eventually power a spinning storm. Depending on the storm’s windspeed, meteorologists decide if it’s a tropical storm or a hurricane.
Overall, adopting the same naming convention for winter storms that we use for hurricanes could confuse the public, meteorologists who protested the decision said.
And a confused public is often an unprepared one.
Imagine you see a tweet from The Weather Channel, for instance, that says that Winter Storm Triton is approaching. It’s going to be a doozy — lots of rain, wind, the whole deal. You consider cancelling your weekend trip upstate. But then you get home and tune into your local weather station to see if there’s an update. The weather person mentions that heavy rains are coming, but says nothing about any big storm, not to mention anything named Triton. Should you still cancel?
Chances are, you won’t be getting an answer any time soon.
Hurricanes are named according to a standardized international system that cycles through a predetermined set of names, while these named winter storms are nothing more than a made-for-TV creation. But despite any confusion that’s resulted from TWC’s latest tradition, the company has no plans to stop naming winter storms.
Their list of potential storm names for the winter of 2014-2015 includes names like Juno, Quantum, and Thor, with one possibility for every letter of the alphabet. (The year’s first significant winter storm got the “A” name, Astro.)
Most names are based on Greek or Roman mythology, with a few exceptions. This year’s “B” storm, Bozeman, is in honour of the Montana high school class that helped develop last year’s list of names. The “W” storm name, Wolf, was chosen via popular vote.
This post is part of a continuing series that answers all of your questions related to science. Have your own question? Email [email protected] with the subject line “Q&A”; tweet your question to @BI_Science; or post to our Facebook page.
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