Hello, fellow kids! The hepcats at The Weather Channel are totally down with our lingo, man. They’ve got some cool winter storm names for us this year, like Goliath and Vexo and, best of all, Winter Storm #YOLO! This winter will be the bee’s knees!
We’re entering our fourth winter where the Atlanta-based weather behemoth will unilaterally assign trendy names to winter storms based on the number of people or amount of land covered by a winter storm warning. The process is similar to naming tropical storms and hurricanes, except these names seem to have come from your aging relatives on Facebook.
The network began the practice back in 2012 after a string of winter storms that spontaneously developed names like “snowmageddon” and “snowpocalypse” on social media. The snowpocalypses started to blend together after a while, however, so the Blue Behemoth saw an opportunity and took it.
For the past couple of winters, we’ve been bombarded with such witty storms as Nemo (fishy!), Q (mysterious!), Xerxes (holy crap!), and Janus (teehee!). This year, the names follow the same path, using a mixture of gods, Latin, and popular culture to achieve the best viral reach.
This winter’s names will include Ajax (stronger than grease!), Ferus (pronounced like Bueller), Goliath, Mars, Waylon, and the headline-maker of the day...Yolo.
An acronym for you only live once. The modern version of the Latin phrase, carpe diem, which is usually translated seize the day.
See? Ha ha. We’re hip. Tune in!
A group of meteorologists at The Weather Channel assigns a name to a storm if it meets their criteria, which is a winter storm warning that covers two million people or 400,000 square kilometers of land, whichever comes first. That’s not hard to accomplish—one winter storm warning that covers a few counties of most metropolitan areas of the country would do it. The square mileage (er, kilometer-age) requirement is there to help sparsely populated areas that see a significant storm—for example, one that covers much of the Plains.
Winter storm warnings are issued by local National Weather Service offices if disruptive amounts of snow or ice are forecast for a particular area within the next 12-48 hours.
This is where we run into the first significant problem. It’s not ideal that we’re taking what is supposed to be a scientific endeavor and basing it on population or land area. Meteorologists name tropical cyclones based on a very specific set of scientific criteria. Every tropical cyclone has a closed wind circulation around the low pressure center at the surface. Every tropical cyclone has a dense mass of thunderstorms near its circulation. Every (purely) tropical cyclone has a warm core.
Population and land area isn’t all that scientific. Winter storms are often nebulous. Rogue showers of snow or freezing rain could produce a quick, slick coating during rush hour that cause traffic jams last late into the night. A giant nor’easter could shut down an area for a day with virtually no other issues. A few hours of freezing drizzle can cause a tragic highway pileup, becoming one of the worst disasters of the season. Even the very term “winter storm” is up for debate.
Using winter storm warnings issued by the National Weather Service is meant to negate this a bit—a winter storm warning in Atlanta or Dallas requires much lower totals of snow/ice than the same warning would require in Minneapolis or New York City.
However, by saying that a storm has to affect a certain number of people or it has to dump snow or ice across a certain area of land to warrant special attention from The Weather Channel (and thereby the rest of us), it takes away from storms that have a significant impact in smaller areas.
Big storms that stay in the headlines for days can obviously have a huge impact, but it’s not always the big storms we remember. There are many instances where a mere dusting of snow can snarl traffic and create huge headaches that make that little coating more impactful and memorable than some of the shovelable snows that easily earn a name. If a significant snow or ice event only blankets one-and-a-half million people or an area of land the size of the Dakotas or smaller, does it matter less to those affected?
One of the top-three snow events in the United States last winter unfolded around Buffalo, as the city’s suburbs saw seven feet of lake effect snow in just a couple of days. Despite the historic impacts and incredible snowfall totals in a metro area that’s home to more than a million people, the event didn’t get a name from The Weather Channel.
The great thing about a hurricane is that we warn people about it whether it’s heading toward a village of twelve people or a city of eight million. In fact, we spend a great deal of time during the summer telling people not to focus on storm names because weaker or unnamed tropical systems can have just as big of an impact. Tropical Storm Allison dropped four feet of rain on Houston in 2001. Hurricane Joaquin didn’t hit South Carolina a few weeks ago—an upper-level low did, but right up until the rain started falling, a great deal of people were inordinately focused on the giant, iconic storm over the Bahamas despite forecasts saying that potentially historic rains were imminent.
These points of criticism are not new, nor are they unique to me. The Weather Channel faces considerable heat over these names every year (even internally), and every year they defend them against critics. Last year, in response to one of my posts about the naming scheme, The Weather Channel’s winter storm expert Tom Niziol popped into the comments to “educate [me] on the facts” (the professional term for “bless your heart”) and explain a bit about their naming process.
To a somewhat cynical observer (like me), the move to name winter storms appears to be a stellar, low-cost marketing campaign that’s aimed at using social media to drive eyes to the company’s television channel and website more than it exists to advance any particular scientific cause. The Weather Channel forcefully denies these accusations, going so far as to insist that they wish to relinquish control of the naming scheme to a third party someday, whether it’s to the American Meteorological Society or the National Weather Service or another organization.
Intentional or not, it is a brilliant marketing move. All mentions of Winter Storm Goliath, for example, will lead back to The Weather Channel. As it stands right now, there is no incentive for public or private meteorologists—not to mention media outlets—to use these winter storm names.
If a curious reader of The Vane or viewer of Local Super Action 15 News at 6:00 went googling or searching Twitter after they heard the name “Winter Storm Echo,” they would land on weather dot com instead of any number of other sites that cover weather. I’m not too concerned about directing my readers to weather dot com (all seventeen of you probably go there, anyway), but the multitude of other private companies and competing news outlets that cover weather would really prefer not to steer their audience into the arms of a competitor over a term like Winter Storm Yolo.
On the other hand, if these names manage to catch on this year, the rest of us will be left in the dust while The Weather Channel does a victory lap. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and nothing will change unless a third ptakes the torch and runs with it on a larger scale with a more defined set of criteria that makes more people more comfortable to use these terms.
While some in the weather community are slowly warming to the idea, we’re going to have to trudge through another year of winter storm names where it’s them against everyone else, and people are going to have to decide whether or not they want to play along or largely ignore them like they have in years past.