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What's in a (storm's) name?

What's in a (storm's) name?

Weather Channel has been naming since 2012
What's in a (storm's) name?
Residents of Victory Avenue in Schenectady try to get their properties clear after Winter Storm Stella.
Photographer: PETER R. BARBER

The National Weather Service is not a fan of naming winter storms.

Neither is the Associated Press Stylebook, the authority on writing guidelines for newspapers and many TV media outlets.

The Weather Channel, on the other hand, thinks it's a practical idea.

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The station has been unofficially naming winter storms since the fall of 2012, through a winter storm naming committee. It consists of three meteorologists: Jonathan Erdman, Stu Ostro and Tom Niziol.

“We do have strict criteria on which winter storms get named,” Erdman said.

If the storm is expected to impact 2 million people or more, or if its impact will be felt over an area measuring 400,000 square kilometers or larger, the storm is awarded a name.

According to Erdman, the Weather Channel began naming storms as a way to get the word out about them at a faster rate.

“The goal, in this age of social media, was to improve communications about winter storms. It’s a lot easier to hashtag 'Stella' than it is “the March 14 snowstorm,'" Erdman said.

Perhaps the strangest part about the storm-naming process is where The Weather Channel gets the names.

Erika Shupe, a Latin teacher at Bozeman High School, was teaching one day when a student spoke up and asked whether she thought the Latin class could help The Weather Channel come up with winter storm names.

She stopped the lesson and the class immediately began to craft a list of names based on Greek mythology. The students wrote a letter to the Weather Channel and they sent it out the next morning.

“We didn’t expect to hear anything back,” Shupe said. But they heard back in five minutes and built a partnership.

For the past five years, Shupe has guided her students and club members each spring to come up with a list of names.  

The naming committee at the Weather Channel then vets the list to make sure that the names are all easy to pronounce and not too long.

“We really love the fact that it’s a teachable moment and a way to document major winter storms,” Shupe said.

It can be difficult to name winter storms because the National Weather Service has a list of possible names that they’ll use to designate hurricanes, according to Erdman.

“ And we can’t use retired hurricane names,” he added.

When the Weather Channel began this process in 2012, it hoped to create a prototype for naming that could be handed off to the National Weather Service, according to Erdman.

But according to the National Weather Service office in Albany, the only storm systems that officially get named are hurricanes, and that is done through the National Hurricane Center. The Weather Channel names between 22 and 26 winter storms each year.

The naming committee will usually decide on a name a few days in advance of a storm and then release it only if it's clear the storm will be as strong as first predicted.

Erdman referred to “Stella" as a “slam dunk storm.”

“We named Stella on Saturday [March 11] because we were that certain about it,” he said. Stella means “star” in Latin.

While the National Weather Service has not expressed interest in joining The Weather Channel in naming winter storms, other government officials have picked up on the names on social media.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo tweeted about the storm on Tuesday and used the hashtag Stellablizzard.

Erdman said Department of Transportation officials usually use the storm names, as well.

Other weather media outlets disagree with The Weather Channel’s decision to name storms.

AccuWeather put out a statement in 2012 declaring that naming winter storms would only serve to mislead the public and create confusion.

According to a meteorologist at the Albany office of The National Weather Service, that agency doesn’t name winter storms because there are so many per winter season, and the impacts can vary greatly from place to place.

As noted, newspapers typically don’t use winter storm names. However, the United Kingdom’s Met Office (the U.K.’s version of the National Weather Service) has been naming winter storms for the past few years. Since 2015, the National Meteorological Services of Ireland have partnered with the U.K. office in naming winter storms.

“I think it’s slowly gaining acceptance,” Erdman said.

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