You might remember this scene and others like it, from the nasty winter storm of January 2011, later dubbed "Carmageddon".
It seems like everything is getting a label lately. In today's social media- frenzied society, it's not surprising that even winter storms are getting names like "Snowmageddon" and "Frankenstorm". Heck, we've been labeling celebrity couples for more than a decade (remember Bennifer?), so why not winter storms, too?
Of course, there are certain types of storms that have been getting labeled for a very long time, more than 50 years, in fact. Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center started casually naming the storms after their wives and girlfriends shortly after WWII. The names became official in the 1950s, and male names were added to the mix in the 1970s. So why haven't winter storms also joined the ranks? I think there are several reasons.
First, winter storms are a lot harder to quantify than tropical systems. Aircraft are actually flown into developing tropical storms to accurately read their wind speed and central pressure. A storm officially gets a name when its sustained winds exceed 39mph. (It becomes a hurricane when winds reach 74mph). We could certainly use wind speed as a benchmark for winter storm classification, but it wouldn't be as effective, since not all snowstorms have strong winds, and not all windy storms have heavy snowfall. Determining a set of criteria for winter storm naming would certainly be a challenge.
Second, winter storms can have highly variable geographic impacts. A foot of snow is no big deal in Denver, but would be a crushing blow to Atlanta. A winter storm in a small town will close the local schools and some businesses, but the same storm in a big city will disrupt airport traffic, creating a domino effect on flight patterns around the country.
Third, winter storms are tough to predict! One day's model data might show a monster storm in our area, but when the storm actually forms, it stays out to sea and we get nothing. The potential is great for winter storms to get named, only to have little or no impact.Of course, the same applies for tropical storms, since many remain in the open water of the ocean and never impact land. But as described above, tropical systems are much easier to classify and name, which helps limit confusion.
The Weather Channel, the largest private weather company in the United States, started naming winter storms this year. They dubbed the Nor'Easter, which arrived right on the heels of Hurricane Sandy,"Athena". The next storm, "Brutus", came only a few days later and dumped heavy snow in the upper Midwest in early November.
TWC is the largest private weather company in the United States, and they believe naming the storms will increase awareness and make them easier to track. But most other forecasting services, including TV stations owned by the same company as TWC, are rejecting the names and refuse to use them. We at WUSA9 will not be using the names, either. Only time will tell if the names will stick, or if they'll become a quick buzz in the Twittersphere before disappearing forever.