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Why is it Controversial to Name Winter Storms?

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Getty Images

If you live in the United States, chances are you’ve read about a winter storm that had a name attached to it much like a hurricane. Just over a week ago, Winter Storm Jonas blasted the east, and Winter Storm Kayla is currently dumping heavy snow from Colorado to Wisconsin. It won’t be the first time you’ve heard names like these: Once or twice a year for the past few years, social media has lit up with news of Winter Storm Nemo or Winter Storm Goliath threatening to dump feet of snow on winter-weary towns.

This practice of naming winter storms is relatively new, and it’s controversial among meteorologists and the news media. It seems like a silly controversy, but there are some pretty strong arguments both for and against assigning names to winter storms.


The Weather Channel began naming winter storms during the 2012–2013 winter season, generating a list of names from A to Z similar to how we keep track of tropical storms and hurricanes. A panel of meteorologists at the television network came up with criteria a winter storm must meet in order to be assigned a name: As of the winter of 2015–2016, the network will name a storm if 2,000,000 people or 400,000 square kilometers of land are covered by an official winter storm warning, which is issued by the United States National Weather Service when significant amounts of snow and ice are forecast for a certain area.

Both the television network and proponents of winter storm naming strongly defend the system. They insist that calling a winter storm by a name instead of simply referring to it in generic terms will assist people in keeping track of significant snow and ice in their area, helping meteorologists convey hazards to the public and allowing people in harm’s way to easily track threats to their safety. Meteorologists began naming hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean for roughly the same reason—to help both them and the public easily keep an eye on storms swirling toward land.

Their argument has precedent. Officials in Germany have assigned names to individual windstorms for decades, and the UK’s Met Office began naming major storms in 2015. Some historical weather events created such an impact on society that they naturally sprouted nicknames for easy reference. The “Storm of the Century” in 1993, for example, needs little introduction to anyone in the eastern United States. The Knickerbocker Blizzard of 1922 is widely remembered because of its unique name; the rapid accumulation of snow in that blizzard collapsed the roof of the Knickerbocker Theatre in Washington, D.C., killing nearly 100 people.

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Some recent winter storms acquired names solely due to viral trends on social media. The early 2010s produced storms with nicknames like “Snowpocalypse” and “Snowmageddon,” which were tongue-in-cheek ways for people on sites like Twitter to keep track of and remember major thumps of snow. The Weather Channel’s winter storm naming system grew from this social media trend.

If it’s intended to help people, then why are there people opposed to winter storm names? I’m one of them, and I’ve extensively detailed my opposition to the naming system in the past.


One of the major arguments against assigning names to winter storms is that The Weather Channel went about classifying these storms on their own with names they chose using seemingly arbitrary criteria they invented. They received no input or collaboration from the National Weather Service, which as the federal government’s official weather forecasting agency is tasked with responsibilities like issuing official warnings and classifying and naming hurricanes. Neither the National Weather Service, competing private weather outlets (like AccuWeather), nor a majority of news outlets honor the network’s naming system. The Weather Channel unilaterally calling a snowstorm “Winter Storm Xerxes,” for example, can breed confusion instead of cohesion if others don't use the name. 

Another reason there’s opposition to the naming system is that it’s based more on society than science. When meteorologists classify a disturbance as a hurricane, they arrive at this conclusion based on sound scientific evidence. They look at wind speeds, wind direction, pressure gradients, and cloud patterns to determine if a system has achieved sufficient strength and organization. In both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, a storm receives a name from a predetermined list once it reaches tropical storm strength.

The Weather Channel’s winter storm naming system is based on how many people or how much real estate is affected by the worst part of a storm. A localized but extremely impactful winter storm could affect 1,000,000 people, but since it doesn’t reach that 2,000,000 population requirement, it wouldn’t receive a name. The November 2014 lake effect snow event that dropped up to 7 feet of snow around Buffalo, New York, was easily one of the most impactful snow events that season, but it didn’t receive a name because not enough people were affected. This doesn’t even take into account the fact that sometimes it only takes a light dusting of snow or thin glaze of ice to create extensive issues.

This naming system could also have the unintended effect of breeding a sense of complacency, similar to what people experience during hurricane season. Many coastal residents ignore and even openly mock tropical disturbances that aren’t named hurricanes, even though such systems could spawn the same level of devastating flooding and damage as a more “respectable” named storm. Widespread use of winter storm names could create the same issue, leading people to falsely believe that an unnamed snow or ice event isn’t worthy of the same attention or concern as a named event.

Regardless of what one thinks about giving names to snow and ice storms, The Weather Channel has no plans to stop the program anytime soon. The names have slowly caught on with businesses and local governments, and Facebook even referenced the January 2016 blizzard as “Winter Storm Jonas” in some of its trending news blurbs. Winter storm names are probably here to stay— it’s just a matter of adjusting the criteria and convincing everyone else to go along with it. For its part, The Weather Channel openly wishes that more people would cooperate with the system, and the network’s president stated in a 2015 interview that they hope the National Weather Service completely takes over winter storm naming sometime soon. 

Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock
The Body
10 Facts About the Appendix
Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock
Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock

Despite some 500 years of study, the appendix might be one of the least understood structures in the human body. Here's what we know about this mysterious organ.


The human appendix is small, tube-shaped, and squishy, giving ancient Egyptians, who encountered it when preparing bodies for funerary rites, the impression of a worm. Even today, some medical texts refer to the organ as vermiform—Latin for "worm-like."


The earliest description of a human appendix was written by the Renaissance physician-anatomist Jacopo Berengario da Carpi in 1521. But before that, Leonardo da Vinci is believed to drawn the first depiction of the organ in his anatomical drawings in 1492. Leonardo claimed to have dissected 30 human corpses in his effort to understand the way the body worked from mechanical and physiological perspectives.


The appendix is a small pouch connected to the cecum—the beginning of the large intestine in the lower right-hand corner of your abdomen. The cecum’s job is to receive undigested food from the small intestine, absorb fluids and salts that remain after food is digested, and mix them with mucus for easier elimination; according to Mohamad Abouzeid, M.D., assistant professor and attending surgeon at NYU Langone Medical Center, the cecum and appendix have similar tissue structures.


The appendix has an ill-deserved reputation as a vestigial organ—meaning that it allegedly evolved without a detectable function—and we can blame Charles Darwin for that. In the mid-19th century, the appendix had been identified only in humans and great apes. Darwin thought that our earlier ancestors ate mostly plants, and thus needed a large cecum in which to break down the tough fibers. He hypothesized that over time, apes and humans evolved to eat a more varied and easier-to-digest diet, and the cecum shrank accordingly. The appendix itself, Darwin believed, emerged from the folds of the wizened cecum without its own special purpose.


The proximity and tissue similarities between the cecum and appendix suggest that the latter plays a part in the digestive process. But there’s one noticeable difference in the appendix that you can see only under a microscope. “[The appendix] has a high concentration of the immune cells within its walls,” Abouzeid tells Mental Floss.

Recent research into the appendix's connection to the immune system has suggested a few theories. In a 2015 study in Nature Immunology, Australian researchers discovered that a type of immune cells called innate lymphoid cells (ILCs) proliferate in the appendix and seem to encourage the repopulation of symbiotic bacteria in the gut. This action may help the gut recover from infections, which tend to wipe out fluids, nutrients, and good bacteria.

For a 2013 study examining the evolutionary rationale for the appendix in mammal species, researchers at Midwestern University and Duke University Medical Center concluded that the organ evolved at least 32 times among different lineages, but not in response to dietary or environmental factors.

The same researchers analyzed 533 mammal species for a 2017 study and found that those with appendices had more lymphatic (immune) tissue in the cecum. That suggests that the nearby appendix could serve as "a secondary immune organ," the researchers said in a statement. "Lymphatic tissue can also stimulate growth of some types of beneficial gut bacteria, providing further evidence that the appendix may serve as a 'safe house' for helpful gut bacteria." This good bacteria may help to replenish healthy flora in the gut after infection or illness.


For such a tiny organ, the appendix gets infected easily. According to Abouzeid, appendicitis occurs when the appendix gets plugged by hardened feces (called a fecalith or appendicolith), too much mucus, or the buildup of immune cells after a viral or bacterial infection. In the United States, the lifetime risk of getting appendicitis is one in 15, and incidence in newly developed countries is rising. It's most common in young adults, and most dangerous in the elderly.

When infected, the appendix swells up as pus fills its interior cavity. It can grow several times larger than its average 3-inch size: One inflamed appendix removed from a British man in 2004 measured just over 8 inches, while another specimen, reported in 2007 in the Journal of Clinical Pathology, measured 8.6 inches. People with appendicitis might feel generalized pain around the bellybutton that localizes on the right side of the abdomen, and experience nausea or vomiting, fever, or body aches. Some people also get diarrhea.


Treatment for appendicitis can go two ways: appendectomy, a.k.a. surgical removal of the appendix, or a first line of antibiotics to treat the underlying infection. Appendectomies are more than 99 percent effective against recurring infection, since the organ itself is removed. (There have been cases of "stump appendicitis," where an incompletely removed appendix becomes infected, which often require further surgery.)

Studies show that antibiotics produce about a 72 percent initial success rate. “However, if you follow these patients out for about a year, they often get recurrent appendicitis,” Abouzeid says. One 2017 study in the World Journal of Surgery followed 710 appendicitis patients for a year after antibiotic treatment and found a 26.5 percent recurrence rate for subsequent infections.


You might imagine a ruptured appendix, known formally as a perforation, being akin to the "chestbuster" scene in Alien. Abouzeid says it's not quite that dramatic, though it can be dangerous. When the appendix gets clogged, pressure builds inside the cavity of the appendix, called the lumen. That chokes off blood supply to certain tissues. “The tissue dies off and falls apart, and you get perforation,” Abouzeid says. But rather than exploding, the organ leaks fluids that can infect other tissues.

A burst appendix is a medical emergency. Sometimes the body can contain the infection in an abscess, Abouzeid says, which may be identified through CT scans or X-rays and treated with IV antibiotics. But if the infection is left untreated, it can spread to other parts of the abdomen, a serious condition called peritonitis. At that point, the infection can become life-threatening.


In 1894, Charles McBurney, a surgeon at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, popularized an open-cavity, muscle-splitting technique [PDF] to remove an infected appendix, which is now called an open appendectomy. Surgeons continued to use McBurney's method until the advent of laparoscopic surgery, a less invasive method in which the doctor makes small cuts in the patient's abdomen and threads a thin tube with a camera and surgical tools into the incisions. The appendix is removed through one of those incisions, which are usually less than an inch in length.

The first laparoscopic appendectomies were performed by German physician Kurt Semm in the early 1980s. Since then, laparoscopic appendectomies have become the standard treatment for uncomplicated appendicitis. For more serious infections, open appendectomies are still performed.


When the future King Edward VII of Great Britain came down with appendicitis (or "perityphlitis," as it was called back then) in June 1902, mortality rates for the disease were as high as 26 percent. It was about two weeks before his scheduled coronation on June 26, 1902, and Edward resisted having an appendectomy, which was then a relatively new procedure. But surgeon and appendicitis expert Frederick Treves made clear that Edward would probably die without it. Treves drained Edward's infected abscess, without removing the organ, at Buckingham Palace; Edward recovered and was crowned on August 9, 1902.


On August 26, 2006, during an autopsy at a Zagreb, Croatia hospital, surgeons obtained a 10.24-inch appendix from 72-year-old Safranco August. The deceased currently holds the Guinness World Record for "largest appendix removed."

Science Has a Good Explanation For Why You Can't Resist That Doughnut

Unless you’re one of those rare people who doesn’t like sweets, the lure of a glazed or powdered doughnut is often too powerful to resist. The next time you succumb to that second or third Boston cream, don’t blame it on weak willpower—blame it on your brain.

As the New Scientist reports, a Yale University study published in the journal Cell Metabolism provides new evidence that foods rich in both carbohydrates and fats fire up the brain’s reward center more than most foods. For the study, volunteers were shown pictures of carb-heavy foods (like candy), fatty foods (like cheese), and foods high in both (like doughnuts). They were then asked to bid money on the food they wanted to eat most, all while researchers measured their brain activity.

Not only were volunteers willing to pay more for doughnuts and similar foods, but foods high in carbs and fat also sparked far more activity in the striatum, the area of the brain where dopamine is released. (Chocolate is one of the foods most commonly associated with increases in dopamine, working in the same way as drugs like cocaine and amphetamines.)

Presented with these findings, researcher Dana Small theorized that the brain may have separate systems to assess fats and carbs. Modern junk foods that activate both systems at once may trigger a larger release of dopamine as a result.

This study doesn’t entirely explain why different people crave different foods, though. Much of it has to do with our habits and the foods we repeatedly gravitate towards when we want to feel happy or alleviate stress. Another study from 2015 found that certain treats associated with high levels of reward in the brain—like pizza, chocolate, chips, and cookies—were considered to be the most addictive foods (doughnuts didn’t make the top 20, though).

It's still possible to turn down foods that are bad for you, though. While many people try to improve their self-control, one of the most effective ways to avoid an undesired outcome is to remove the temptation completely. Free doughnuts in the break room? Stay far away.

[h/t New Scientist]


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