Winter Storm Yolo

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

On Tuesday morning, the Weather Channel announced its list of names for the 2015-2016 winter storm season. They are, I think it’s fair to say, pretty silly: The station’s meteorologists will warn viewers this year to prepare for tempests named Regis, Zandor, and Yolo. (Had I more time, this post would’ve led off with a ‘Weather Channel winter storm name or Power Rangers villain?’ quiz.)

Three years ago, when the Weather Channel first announced it would name winter storms, the larger forecasting community mocked the effort. The names were seen as a “cheap advertising ploy” and as another sign of the channel’s tabloidization. (It’s since gotten serious again, abandoning its reality-show-driven approach. It cancelled Fat Guys in the Woods last month.)

This year, though, I’m noticing some changes in the tenor of coverage. Some meteorologists are saying: These names are a good idea.

Over at the Capital Weather Gang blog, forecasters Ian Livingston and Brendan Heberton not only defend the Weather Channel’s names, but also advocate for their adoption across meteorology:

Here’s the thing: Names are here to stay. We should move beyond the disagreement and exploit this fact. Full adoption of a cooperative effort in naming winter storms would evolve what now often feels like a media gimmick into something truly useful.

It will probably be a bumpy process, and there’s still a lot of work to do in making the naming system the most useful that it can be for public awareness and even historical reference. But cross-enterprise acceptance and involvement will help iron out the kinks in what is proving to be a surprisingly complex undertaking.

Naming storms, they say, will better help forecasters communicate the impact of storms. It will help meteorologists describe storms to each other, before and long after they hit. And it will even help strengthen meteorological understanding of what makes a major winter storm major: When the Weather Channel started naming storms, it just hurled them at any ominous-looking cold front; now, it only names storms if they will affect two million people or 400,000 square kilometers. (Though that method too is imperfect—as the Washington Post details.)

I find it hard not to be convinced by Livingston and Heberton. Anyone who’s tried to cross-reference storms from the recent past on Wikipedia knows how troubled current naming conventions are: Referencing the “January 31 to February 2, 2011 North American blizzard” isn’t exactly fast. And—speaking now in my professional capacity as a journalist—it really sucks to have to come up with a new ‘snow’ plus ‘end-of-the-world word’ portmanteau every six weeks.