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.)
Because winter storms don’t spin up like cyclones do, the Weather Channel has had to get more creative in its definition of the storms. In 2015, it decided that any storm that affected 2 million people or 400,000 square kilometers would get a name. This weekend’s storm is the 10th to meet the criteria since October (it’s projected to affect up to 85 million people), so it’s Winter Storm Jonas.
But not everyone is content to go along with the Weather Channel’s nomenclature—as it is, after all, a kind of marketing. The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang, which operates the blog of record for greater Beltway meteorology, held a poll to name the storm. Almost all the names proposed followed the scheme (“snow” plus “bad thing suffix”) started during the district’s 2010 storms, when Snowmageddon came only three days after Snowpocalypse. Though the novelty hit “Make Winter Great Again” won that poll, the Post decided it just didn’t work as a storm name, and it went with the second-place finisher: Snowzilla.
But even this name didn’t satisfy everyone. So Slate’s meteorologist, Eric Holthaus, started a new poll to “find a better name for this blizzard than #Snowzilla.” The options: Snowball Warning, Tsnownami, Blizzard of the Century, and David Snowie. (Unfortunately, not among the contenders: Ziggy Snowdust.) As of Friday evening, Snowie was on top.
Meanwhile, the crowd has chosen its own monikers. Both #blizzard2016 and #snowpocalypse2016 are trending on Twitter in D.C.
So many names for one system: Jonas, Snowzilla, David Snowie, the Blizzard of 2016. Much of this confusion could be resolved if the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration went ahead and christened winter storms like it does cyclones. There would be a clear way to talk about the system, and none of the names would retain the filth of marketing.
And do these storms even need names in the first place? Since they aren’t discrete phenomena like hurricanes, many people don’t think so. But I’ve come around on winter-storm names, for many of the reasons set out by Capital Weather Gang’s Ian Livingston and Brendan Heberton last year. Livingston and Heberton both opposed winter-storm naming when the Weather Channel started doing it, but as it gained steam, they found themselves more and more behind it.
And there are many perks to going with government names. It’s easier to describe and differentiate between named storms than bland weather patterns: Snowmageddon and Snowpocalypse are much easier to recall than “the first and second North American blizzards of 2010.” Names help forecasters accurately communicate the risks of a system to the public. And they would help meteorologists better understand what kind of storms become Big Ones and what kind of storms go bust.
As NOAA itself describes the virtues of hurricane names: “Over time, it was learned that the use of short, easily remembered names in written as well as spoken communications is quicker and reduces confusion when two or more tropical storms occur at the same time.”
Livingston and Heberton lay out some guidelines on how that naming system should work in their proposal. As they’re actual meteorologists, I’ll leave the specs to them. But as a journalist, I’ve been surprised to find myself in favor of the Weather Channel’s marketing ploy. The network shouldn’t retain singular control over winter-storm names.
But having one thing to call Winter Storm Jonas, or Snowzilla, or the first blizzard of 2016, or David Snowie, or #snowmageddon2016, or the major northeast precipitation event of January 22 and 23, 2016—well, anyway, having a single name for this thing sure would be useful.
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