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Why Naming this Winter Storm Leon is a Great Thing


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.



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

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