The first thing you notice from the satellite is that it’s a monster, a single storm that stretches from Alabama to Pennsylvania, promising low pressure and high winds and moisture galore. If the forecasts come close to the reality, it will dump snow on every mid-Atlantic city along Interstate 95. It’s supposed to be the worst snowstorm that Washington, D.C., has seen in nearly 100 years.
And what will this goliath of a winter storm be called?
To the National Weather Service, it doesn’t need to be anything other than a “major winter storm.” Unlike hurricanes or tropical cyclones, which are well-organized and have a discrete center of circulation, nor’easters are just an especially strong version of normal weather patterns. As the winter-weather expert Paul Kocin, who literally wrote the book on huge northeast snowstorms, told me on Wednesday, they’re “just a very big manifestation of what we see all the time.”
That is, meteorologists can track hurricanes, and they can point to where they start and stop. Often they have to track more than one at a time, which makes names especially handy. But as a friend of mine put it on Twitter on Friday: Big snowstorms are just … the weather.
That doesn’t keep people from trying to name them, though. In October of last year, the Weather Channel announced its list of winter-storm names for the 2015-2016 season. The names tended to be more esoteric than those usually bestowed upon cyclones: winter storms Quo, Zandor, and Yolo. (By contrast, the National Hurricane Center has posted the names of cyclones all the way up to 2020. Hurricane Wilifred is about as unusual as they get.)