Talking about the weather might be a dull move at dinner parties or over cocktails. But online, it seems there’s no more captivating topic than the snow, sleet, rain or ice falling outside our windows.
The Weather Channel has capitalized on this interest by giving unofficial names to winter storms, in turn spawning hashtags and headlines that blanket the internet. As anyone on Twitter saw on Tuesday, the entire U.S. Northeast was gabbing about #StellaBlizzard.
The storm was expected to dump at least a foot of snow on as many as 100 million people across the northern U.S. Some meteorologists described the storm system as “bombogenesis,” a fancy way of saying an area of low pressure is rapidly intensifying.
The Weather Channel started naming winter storms in the 2013-2013 winter season — a first for a private forecasting service. While U.S. government agencies name tropical storms and hurricanes, they don’t name winter storms like Stella.
Naming storms helps alert more people to winter weather warnings and enables them to better prepare, The Weather Channel has said.
“It’s an attempt to focus communication on social media around either an upcoming or an ongoing storm,” said Jonathan Erdman, a senior meteorologist for The Weather Channel and one of three members on the network’s storm-naming committee.
“It’s easier to hashtag something like #Stella, as opposed to ‘The Northeast Winter Storm Of 2017,'” he said by phone from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The decision to name storms initially drew scrutiny from meteorologists and weather geeks.
In October 2012, rival forecast outfit AccuWeather said the storm-naming “has confused media spin with science and public safety” and was “doing a disservice” to meteorology and public service.
“Winter storms are very different from hurricanes,”Joel N. Myers, president of AccuWeather, said at the time.
The National Weather Service doesn’t name winter storms, in part because they can be so widespread and diffuse. Impacts may vary from place to place: one town might get a light dusting of snow, while others might see dangerous winds and snowfall, or endure a gross barrage of sleet.
However, the U.K. Met Office does name winter storms, including Doris, which walloped northern Ireland, Scotland and England last month.
Erdman said The Weather Channel would gladly forfeit its role to the National Weather Service, should the government decide to start naming winter storms.
“It was never meant to be something that we continue to do ad nauseam just at The Weather Channel,” he said.
Along with Erdman, the winter storm naming committee includes senior weather experts Tom Niziol and Stu Ostro. Over the past four seasons, the team has named an average of about 24 winter storms per season, with 22 storms in the 2015-2016 season.
A winter storm earns a name when it meets one of two criteria: Either 2 million people are under a National Weather Service warning for a winter storm, blizzard or freezing rain event — or those warnings span an area of about 154,400 square miles.
In most cases, the trio will wait until those warnings are issued to officially label a storm. But occasionally, the experts will unveil the name before the National Weather Service alerted residents.
In the case of Stella, the team named the storm on Saturday morning, three days before Stella began pummeling the East Coast with precipitation.
“Stella was such a slam dunk; we knew it was going to reach our criteria,” Erdman said.
When it comes to picking the names, however, the committee relies on outside experts.
This 2016-2017 winter season, The Weather Channel collaborated with students in Bozeman High School’s Latin class in Montana. After Stella, keep an eye out for these winter storms: Theseus, Ursa, Valerie, Wyatt, Xavier, Yuri and Zeno.