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What’s in a blizzard’s name?


February 20, 2013

We held our annual 4-H sledding party this month in the good fortune of the storm now known as Nemo.

For us, the snow was a stroke of luck, as we had scheduled the event well in advance of a forecast. Not so much for my mother-in-law, who had upwards of 27 inches in Massachusetts, or those shoveling the roofs in Milford, CT, which had a record 38 inches. Nemo will be remembered there—and not as an orange Disney fish.

The recent trend of naming winter snow storms may help make it easier to remember them in the future, but it is a trend that is not without dispute.

The Weather Channel (TWC) announced plans to begin naming significant winter storms last October, in an effort, it said, to alert people to the threat and the timing of major storms. A named storm takes on a personality of its own, TWC argued, which in turn increases awareness.

Hurricanes and tropical storms have been given names since the 1940s, and weather systems including winter storms have been named in Europe since the 1950s. But hurricanes, which are named and tracked by the National Hurricane Center, are much more easily defined than a snow storm. There is a strict criterion in place for the naming of tropical systems. (For instance, Atlantic tropical storms are named when they reach sustained wind speeds of 39 mph and are redefined as hurricanes at 74 mph.)

But, as we saw with Nemo, winter storms affect areas unevenly. Naming a storm might just contribute to more confusion. TWC states that before christening a storm it will determine whether a storm system has the potential to disrupt a region or a significant portion of the population. They will also consider whether the storm will occur at a particularly hectic time of day or week. TWC says it will announce a storm only three days in advance of its start so that it will have reasonable assurance that the storm will actually pan out.

Some meteorologists and private weather agencies also object to TWC’s bold move of naming storms on its own without the coordination of the National Weather Service (NWS). In fact, the NWS has advised forecasters not to use the names in their broadcasts. (New York Times reporters were also directed not to use the names in their writing.) Another main criticism of the plan is that it is a marketing scheme that will escalate the storm hype. (And the run on milk and bread.)