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Weather Channel announces plan to name winter storms

Ben Anderson
NOAA photo

So long, "WINTER STORM 2012." See you later, "SNOWMAGEDDON." Hasta la vista, "SNOWPOCALYPSE."

The Weather Channel announced on Tuesday that it will begin giving major winter storm systems actual names, in an effort to more effectively disseminate information about nasty winter weather. This likely means that the perennial -- and, let's be honest, pretty hokey -- monikers for snowstorms will disappear from local newscasts around the country.

Plus, the new names don't sound much better than those cliché news leads. The Weather Channel’s storms will be dubbed a bizarre mishmash of names from classical mythology, New York City subway lines, and “people who do yoga.”

That’s not a joke. Here’s the complete list of proposed names, including definitions  and inspirations provided by the Weather Channel. Some of our other favorites:

  • Rocky: Named for “a single mountain in the Rockies.” Coincidentally, “Rocky: Winter Storm” was also the working title of Sylvester Stallone’s latest project.
  • Khan: The Weather Channel’s definitions says that the origin for this one comes from a Mongolian emperor, but the Star Trek villain seems the more likely inspiration, given this next one.
  • Gandolf: Named not for J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous wizard, but for that character’s own namesake, from an 1896 fantasy novel written by William Morris. Apparently, the hipsters at the Weather Channel liked Gandalf before he was cool.

The goal behind the naming of these storms is an admirable one, and much the same as the logic behind naming hurricanes, a tradition dating back hundreds of years, to when hurricanes were named after the day of the saint that the storm occurred, according to the National Weather Service.

"(U)ntil now, there has been no organized naming system for these storms before they impact population centers,” The Weather Channel said of its new plan. “Naming winter storms will raise awareness, which will lead to more pro-active efforts to plan ahead, resulting in less impact on the public overall.”

Atlantic hurricanes are named from a pool of six lists, used on a year-by-year basis and recycled every six years. Some names are retired after a hurricane proves particularly devastating, both in terms of damage or loss of life. Retired names include 1992’s infamous Hurricane Andrew, 2005’s Katrina, and this year’s Irene.

But winter storms have eluded being named, largely because they’re notoriously fickle, and not necessarily as reliable as hurricanes when it comes to prediction. The National Weather Service has only rated the strength of winter storms after they’ve already happened.

“A winter storm’s impact ... can vary from one location to another, (the storms) can fade away and then come back, and it can be difficult to figure out where one ends and another begins,” said Dennis Feltgen, spokesman for the National Hurricane Center (NHC).

Feltgen said that the National Weather Service, of which the NHC is part, has “absolutely no opinion” about private weather entities, like The Weather Channel, whether or not they plan to name winter storms in advance of their arrival.

Perhaps the big difference between hurricanes and winter storms is where most of the human impact comes from. The most devastating aspects of hurricanes are often flooding and high winds, which have the potential to destroy homes, knock out infrastructure, or cause fatalities. In winter storms, the most common causes of death are tangential to the storm itself, in the form of hypothermia -- a constant threat in the long Alaska winter -- or automobile accidents.

But advance warning wouldn’t solve that latter problem. If any Alaskan were to step outside and see two feet of fresh snow, he or she’d know that getting to work will take a little longer that day. Having a name for the storm that just swept through wouldn’t change that.

In the end, then, it seems that the naming of these winter storms comes down to a simple publicity stunt.

“In addition to providing information about significant winter storms by referring to them by name, the name itself will make communication and information sharing in the constantly expanding world of social media much easier,” Tom Niziol of The Weather Channel explained. 

“Finally, it might even be fun and entertaining and that in itself should breed interest from our viewing public and our digital users,” Niziol concludes. Sure, because nothing says fun like days of below-freezing temperatures, epic snowfalls, high winds, and dangerous, slippery roads.

Alaska may fall victim to one of these new names, too: last winter, an “Arctic hurricane,” also known in the Alaska Dispatch newsroom as a “Brrr-icane” swept across the coast of Western Alaska, bringing high surf and heavy precipitation to villages for days. The city of Cordova, accustomed to high levels of snowfall, was crippled for several days when a dump of 20 inches fell in Prince William Sound.

Just last month, a storm that rivaled hurricane-level low atmospheric pressure conditions swept into the Gulf of Alaska. Fortunately, that storm just missed out on possibly being dubbed “Winter Storm Xerxes,” or “Winter Storm Yogi.”

And yes, those are both on the list.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com

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