What Happens When We Run Out of Ridiculous Winter Storm Names?

The Weather Channel has a plan if we exhaust the alphabet this winter—though you might be surprised who’s really behind it.

Mar 6, 2015
Outside Magazine
  • The Weather Channel only started naming winter storms three years ago. How soon until we run out?   Photo: GlacierNPS

  • The Weather Channel only started naming winter storms three years ago. How soon until we run out?   Photo: GlacierNPS

If you’re a regular watcher of The Weather Channel or consumer of weather-related social media, you probably already know that the country was recently besieged by Winter Storm #Sparta before being hammered by Winter Storm #Thor.

And if you’re familiar with the naming conventions for winter storms, you’ll know that they (like hurricanes) are assigned their monikers from a 26-name alphabetical list established at the start of the season.

So you might be wondering: seeing as March just started and we’re already on “T,” what happens when we hit the end of the alphabet? The answer, it turns out, is simple—we start over again at “A.” This didn’t happen last winter, when we only made it to Winter Storm #Zephyr, but the year before, after Winter Storm #Zeus, a freak May blizzard in the Midwest prompted a reboot with #Achilles. The year before that, of course, nobody bothered to name winter storms.

Plenty of ink has already been spilled over The Weather Channel’s three-year-old blizzard-naming schtick. The National Weather Service is not on board with it. Journalists, bloggers, and dissenting meteorologists have called it everything from “media spin” to “a cheap advertising ploy” to “a marketing event to gin up interest and scare the bejesus out of people until they watch The Weather Channel”.

On Twitter and other social media, however, the Greek- and Latin-based handles—like #Kronos, #Neptune, #Janus, and #Nemo—have been heartily, if sometimes ironically, embraced. And this, argues The Weather Channel, amounts to a proof of concept: the whole notion of naming storms derived from Twitter’s ascendancy and the resulting need for shorthand, explains Weather Channel executive and meteorologist Bryan Norcross. “There isn’t any good way to describe a storm occurring in a certain region if you’re on a medium that goes everywhere,” he says, “especially when you’re limited to a 140 characters. So it was really driven by the need of a hashtag.”

Rarely reported in the flurry of takes on The Weather Channel’s naming scheme is the actually rather charming fact that, for the last two winters, the network’s list of blizzard names has been penned by the Latin Club at Bozeman High School in Bozeman, Montana. The students sent an unsolicited list back in 2012, says Norcross, and they were so enthusiastic about it, he’s been working with them to come up with names ever since.

One criticism often lobbed at The Weather Channel is that its naming system is needlessly alarmist, that it seems almost designed to cause panic—because what kind of callously indifferent school district isn’t going to preemptively cancel classes with something called #Maximus bearing down on it? For the sheer over-the-top epic-ness of storm names like #Titan, #Pandora, or #Hercules, however, we actually have the Bozeman High Latin Club, rather than The Weather Channel, to thank/blame.

The network, for its part, realizes that some names have a more aggressive connotation than others, says Norcross, but hey, there are only so many names out there that have a Classical etymology and are also sufficiently easy for your average Twitter user to spell. “Some are kind of bracing by the nature of them,” he acknowledges, “so we think about that, but we don’t fret about it.”

How’s this for bracing? Up next is Winter Storm #Ultima. And if we make it past #Zelus with no sign of spring? Not to worry—the Latin students at Bozeman High have already given The Weather Channel a list of overflow names.

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