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Why Naming this Winter Storm Leon is a Great Thing

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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So the winter storm that has half the South obsessively checking its phones for NWS updates or Weather Underground forecasts has a name. It is called Leon, and it got that name from the Weather Channel, which is now naming winter storms for the exact same reason that agencies name hurricanes: it makes them easier to talk about. This is a nice service by the Weather Channel for several reasons. And yes — you may infer that before this post is over with I will have referred you back to my beloved Beaufort Scale of wind force, the apex of both observational science and descriptive English prose.

But we were talking about winter storms Leon. First, just as with hurricanes, giving a storm a name instead of coordinates of its center of low pressure just makes life easier. Back when this tradition began, the people who worried about such things were meteorologists: “He justified the sentimental vagary by explaining mentally that each storm was really an individual and that he could more easily say (to himself, of course) ‘Antonia’ than ‘the low-pressure center which was yesterday in Latitude 175 east, Longitude 42 north.’” That’s from the famous 1941 book Storm, which stars both an unnamed meteorologist and a tropical storm he calls Maria. And to be sure storms sometimes had names before that, and some Latin peoples have traditionally given especially large storms names for saints days near which they occurred, but the large-scale naming of storms for ease of communication got its start with George Stewart’s book, and it then spread to government organizations, and his explanation still serves.

The second great thing about the Weather Channel’s decision (they started this last year) is that they’re fully conscious of how much time we all spend talking about the weather, and how we do it. “Hashtags are an intrinsic part of social media, and a storm name proved to be the best way to efficiently and systematically convey storm information,” they say in their explanatory piece. We’re all talking, posting, and tweeting about these storms, so anything that gets the best information to the most people as quickly as possible is a good thing. Given that the channel owes its existence to the fact that people love to obsessively talk about the weather, it’s no surprise that they started this tradition rather than NOAA or the National Weather Service or the World Meteorological Organization. The Weather Channel is quite literally on the cutting edge of how people talk about weather, so it makes perfect sense that they figure out the best way to do it and then go about doing it. And everybody else has the same goal, so they’re playing nicely: expect to hear plenty of mentions of winter storm Leon as the custom spreads. There’s no reason for anybody to resist names. If they get the word out, it’s all to the good.

The name, by the way, comes from a list the channel created this year with the help of high school students from Bozeman, MT, who focused their choices on names from Greek mythology. Thus though Leon sounds like somebody’s uncle who’s probably an orthodontist, it actually refers to the Greek word for lion — probably the Nemean Lion, a totally awesome invulnerable lion killed by Herakles (we, like the Romans, usually call him Hercules). That lion pelt he’s always pictured wearing? That’s the guy.

Anyhow, the final thing that’s wonderful about the way the Weather Channel is going about naming these winter storms is the way they are examining their decisions on whether to name storms. In this piece they explain the science of how they decide a storm is name-worthy.

“The process, referred to as IMPACT for Integrated Meteorological Population and Area Calculation Tool, calculates the population and area that is forecast to be impacted by winter weather based on thresholds set by the National Weather Service for winter weather warnings and advisories,” the piece says. That is, the NWS will issue a storm warning for Atlanta if there’s going to be two inches of snow, but it takes a lot more than that for anybody to want to bother the people of New Hampshire. They’ll only try to get your attention if a storm is going to be serious for the people who will experience it, and if it will affect a lot of people. The NWS has been at this for a long time, so they’ve got thresholds for warnings, and the Weather Channel didn’t need to reinvent the wheel.

Add to this  another new Weather Channel invention called STORM:CON. It’s based on the Sperry-Piltz Ice Acculumlation Index, a n observational scale that rates ice storms on a five-point scale from 1, with little ice and low wind, which is expected to cause little power-line damage or road problems, up to 5, which can cause “catastrophic damage to entire exposed utility systems,” can last weeks, and can require shelters. It’s yet another outgrowth of the miraculous Beaufort Scale, about which I never stop pontificating.  STORM:CON ranks storms from 1 to 10, with 1-3 yielding “snow and ice but no significant impacts,” 4-5 causing some travel disruptions, 6-7 causing some road, business, and school closures, 8-9 causing serious trouble, and 10 being your basic Snowmageddon.STORM:CON takes into account everything from what day of the week a storm falls on (a Saturday storm will be much less disruptive than a Tuesday) and how quickly on the heels it follows the last one. Storms won’t likely be named until they head up to STORM:CON 6 or 7. And the Weather Channel goes back over its choices each year to hone its classification and hopefully improve its choices and estimates year after year. Soon perhaps a  name will help us know to take a winter storm seriously the same way a named tropical storm gets our attention far more than an ordinary low pressure cell.

Anyhow, as long as we get a couple more observational naming systems I’m happy.



Scott Huler About the Author: A writer who commonly explores science, culture, and the relationship between the two. Follow on Twitter @huler.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. tuned 11:32 am 01/28/2014

    Science has left the building.

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  2. 2. huler 11:38 am 01/28/2014

    Great, @tuned — because what we need is more snide, vaguely phrased, unhelpful potshots. If you have a criticism — of what? this post? one of the scales described? the weather channel? observational science? storm naming? — explain it. Maybe we’ll learn something; maybe YOU will. If you can’t or won’t explain your criticism, you’re just making things worse for everybody.

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  3. 3. Spironis 12:51 pm 01/28/2014

    Leon Kowalski, Blade Runner. “Wake up, Global Warming! Time to die.”

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  4. 4. Martaxi 2:36 pm 01/28/2014

    This article must have been commissioned by The Weather Channel.

    1. This storm is not called Leon. A ratings gimmick by a floundering Weather Channel that has switched from quality weather to Learning Channel-quality programming (i.e. junk) is called Leon.

    2. The vast majority of meteorologists see this ‘naming ‘scheme’ as a complete farce and don’t recognize it. So if there’s confusion as to just what the hell a ‘Leon’ is, is it the fault of the National Weather Service and top meteorologists for not bending before one channel’s marketing move? No–actually it’s the fault of the channel for misleading and confusing its subscribers and some other people who might tune in.

    3. Scientifically, I’m not inherently opposed to naming clear, identifiable, continuous weather entities. Like tropical cyclones usually are. About half of these fronts/winter storms, though, don’t fit the bill at all. They’re nebulous and highly dynamic.

    4. Your hashtag argument? Anyone on twitter can do that. In DC, Capital Weather Gang has a huge local following, it’s very interactive with the community, and they can have fun with a name like ‘Snowmageddon’, it’s tongue in cheek, and the locals know what they’re talking about. These national, corporate-sponsored ‘naming schemes’ are pretty much up their own a**. And they’re followed by about 2% of the public, while the others have no idea what they’re talking about.

    TWC is toast, you realize. I’d jump ship now if I were you.

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  5. 5. oldfartfox 5:24 pm 01/28/2014

    TWC is becoming irrelevant. I always appreciated being no more that 10 minutes away from my local forecast, no matter where my current local was. With the Local on the Eights I could tune in at 10:27 and have the local forecast in a minute, and if I was out of town, I could stick around for a few more minutes and get a general idea of the weather at home. If I try that now I will probably find some tow truck drivers in Canada or something.

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  6. 6. rdranman 10:27 pm 01/28/2014

    Quite frankly, I am concerned about the naming of simple weather patterns for the following reason: my homeowner’s insurance policy has a different deductible for damage done by a storm and damage done by a “named” storm. I wonder if this new convention is at the suggestion of the insurance companies or if there is some business relationship between the Weather Channel and the insurance companies.

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  7. 7. PolishBear 9:52 am 01/29/2014

    “Winter Storm Leon?” Hurricanes and typhoons have names, given to them by the appropriate government agency. Snow storms do NOT have names. The National Weather Service (NWS) hasn’t named the snow, nor has the National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Neither the NWS, NOAA, nor anyone I know is referring to this weather system as “Leon.”

    But yes, in what can only be described as a shameless, pretentious publicity stunt, they have taken it upon themselves to start naming every snow event that comes along, and in the process they have become a bit of a laughingstock. Who knows? Maybe this summer, when things have started quieting down, they’ll start naming HEAT WAVES!

    It makes you wonder how we ever survived the old days when snow was just called SNOW, not given a cute name by The Weather Channel, which is owned by NBC and not the government. Is it REALLY necessary to pander to their sense of self-importance? I expected better from as respected a publication as Scientific American.

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  8. 8. huler 5:38 pm 01/29/2014

    @rdanman, you raise an excellent point. i suspect that until the WC names become in some way official — NWS? NOAA? — insurance agencies would lose such attempts to defraud their customers. I’m getting a lot of angry pushback here, but I’m still waiting for a good explanation of the downside of this. If this catches on, WC burnishes its rep by being perceived as — rightly — seeing a need and filling it. If it doesn’t, as it most likely won’t, who gets hurt? Above all I’m thrilled about the Sperry-Piltz Index. I LOVE an observational scale.

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  9. 9. metman 6:58 pm 01/29/2014

    Hey! I am all for naming things, even storms. Tropical storms have names and so are easily identifiable over time. But hear this! Tropical storms have pressure centers that are easy to follow, and are named because their circulations carry winds 75mph and above. The Storm Leon has a circulation, but it is not the cause of the weather conditions giving problems in the south. The problems are caused by snow/ice/wintry conditions following the approach and passing of a cold front. The circulation is way out to the NE. It confuses since there is no parallel with tropical storms where the center is tracked. I used to pay attention to TWC but I have misgivings about their products. I worked at AccuWx way way back and believe they are more credible. Anyhow, thanks for allowing me to say my piece. I am a retired WMO meteorologist and stay interested in the field. FIELD.

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  10. 10. Postman1 7:58 pm 01/31/2014

    The Weather Channel died at the beginning of this year. It was a slow, lingering, and somewhat embarrassing end to what had once been a good, current, and up to the minute weather reporting service. It was embarrassing to watch Jim Cantore and others begging their few remaining viewers to call and save them. Very few people tune in to a weather channel to watch ‘Ice Road truckers’ or ‘Coast Guard Stories’. They lost their way and now they are nothing more than a tool of a failing network. Sad, but gone they are, and their storm naming game is nothing more than the butt of a few jokes. (Even my local NBC meteorologists refuse to use the names)

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