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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. 

NASA, JPL-Caltech
It's Official: Uranus Smells Like Farts
NASA, JPL-Caltech
NASA, JPL-Caltech

Poor Uranus: After years of being the butt of many schoolyard jokes, the planet's odor lives up to the unfortunate name. According to a new study by researchers at the University of Oxford and other institutions, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, the upper layer of Uranus's atmosphere consists largely of hydrogen sulfide—the same compound that gives farts their putrid stench.

Scientists have long suspected that the clouds floating over Uranus contained hydrogen sulfide, but the compound's presence wasn't confirmed until recently. Certain gases absorb infrared light from the Sun. By analyzing the infrared light patterns in the images they captured using the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii, astronomers were able to get a clearer picture of Uranus's atmospheric composition.

On top of making farts smelly, hydrogen sulfide is also responsible for giving sewers and rotten eggs their signature stink. But the gas's presence on Uranus has value beyond making scientists giggle: It could unlock secrets about the formation of the solar system. Unlike Uranus (and most likely its fellow ice giant Neptune), the gas giants Saturn and Jupiter show no evidence of hydrogen sulfide in their upper atmospheres. Instead they contain ammonia, the same toxic compound used in some heavy-duty cleaners.

"During our solar system's formation, the balance between nitrogen and sulfur (and hence ammonia and Uranus’s newly detected hydrogen sulfide) was determined by the temperature and location of planet’s formation," research team member Leigh Fletcher, of the University of Leicester, said in a press statement. In other words, the gases in Uranus's atmosphere may be able to tell us where in the solar system the planet formed before it migrated to its current spot.

From far away, Uranus's hydrogen sulfide content marks an exciting discovery, but up close it's a silent but deadly killer. In large enough concentrations, the compound is lethal to humans. But if someone were to walk on Uranus without a spacesuit, that would be the least of their problems: The -300°F temperatures and hydrogen, helium, and methane gases at ground level would be instantly fatal.

Live Smarter
Feeling Anxious? Just a Few Minutes of Meditation Might Help

Some say mindfulness meditation can cure anything. It might make you more compassionate. It can fix your procrastination habit. It could ward off germs and improve health. And it may boost your mental health and reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and pain.

New research suggests that for people with anxiety, mindfulness meditation programs could be beneficial after just one session. According to Michigan Technological University physiologist John Durocher, who presented his work during the annual Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, California on April 23, meditation may be able to reduce the toll anxiety takes on the heart in just one session.

As part of the study, Durocher and his colleagues asked 14 adults with mild to moderate anxiety to participate in an hour-long guided meditation session that encouraged them to focus on their breathing and awareness of their thoughts.

The week before the meditation session, the researchers had measured the participants' cardiovascular health (through data like heart rate and the blood pressure in the aorta). They evaluated those same markers immediately after the session ended, and again an hour later. They also asked the participants how anxious they felt afterward.

Other studies have looked at the benefits of mindfulness after extended periods, but this one suggests that the effects are immediate. The participants showed significant reduction in anxiety after the single session, an effect that lasted up to a week afterward. The session also reduced stress on their arteries. Mindfulness meditation "could help to reduce stress on organs like the brain and kidneys and help prevent conditions such as high blood pressure," Durocher said in a press statement, helping protect the heart against the negative effects of chronic anxiety.

But other researchers have had a more cautious outlook on mindfulness research in general, and especially on studies as small as this one. In a 2017 article in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, a group of 15 different experts warned that mindfulness studies aren't always trustworthy. "Misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled, and disappointed," they wrote.

But one of the reasons that mindfulness can be so easy to hype is that it is such a low-investment, low-risk treatment. Much like dentists still recommend flossing even though there are few studies demonstrating its effectiveness against gum disease, it’s easy to tell people to meditate. It might work, but if it doesn't, it probably won't hurt you. (It should be said that in rare cases, some people do report having very negative experiences with meditation.) Even if studies have yet to show that it can definitively cure whatever ails you, sitting down and clearing your head for a few minutes probably won't hurt.


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