Beyond Nemo: The Buffalo Weather Service's Odd, Delightful Way With Storm Names

Beyond Nemo: The Buffalo Weather Service’s Odd, Delightful Way With Storm Names

A little backstory on how snow storm Nemo came to have a name: the practice of naming snow storms came out of the National Weather Service’s Buffalo, NY office, where they’ve been doing it for years as a way of distinguishing between storms. Western New York gets multiple blizzards per year, so you can’t just call them “The Blizzard of [Year]”* when there was probably more than one blizzard that year. It’s the infamous Lake Effect; cold winds whip across the Midwest, pick up water vapor rising off of the warmer-by-comparison Lake Erie, and dump it as fluffy, snowball-perfect snow as soon as it hits land. Upstate gets so much snow, there’s an annual “Golden Snowball” awarded to the city there with the highest snowfall total — so far this year, Syracuse leads Buffalo by 26 inches.

We’re all familiar with the practice of naming hurricanes — that’s been happening since the 1950s — but for most Americans, giving names to other kinds of storms is a recent development. Europe has been doing it since 1954, when Berlin student Karla Wage suggested that notable European weather events be given names, too. The original practice was male names for high-pressure systems, female ones for low-pressure systems, but, for just over a decade now, the gender of high and low pressure has been switched every year, after someone astutely pointed out that good weather was always being named for men, while lousy weather was named for women. The names are not widely used outside of Germany, but the practice has proven popular enough to warrant the Adopt-A-Vortex program, where average folks can purchase the name to a future high- or low-pressure center. Of course, there’s a downside to letting any schlub with €299 to spare name a weather event. Last year a cold front named Cooper, sponsored by car manufacturer Mini Cooper, was responsible for the deaths of more than 40 people across eastern Europe.

Which brings us back to Buffalo, where all snow roads lead.** The National Weather Service office there, seeking a way to differentiate between winter weather events, started assigning names to snowstorms in 1998. Each year, at the beginning of each season, the office staff will choose a new category of names. These names are listed alphabetically, as with hurricanes, but person names are never used, so as to avoid confusion with our tropical friends. Storms in the winter of 1998–99, for example, were named after stars and constellations. 2002–03 were famous scientists (using their last names, obviously). 2011–12 were breeds of cow. The names are used mostly for internal purposes; the information is available to anyone following Weather Service reports, but are not typically picked up by local media. An early October 2006 snowstorm responsible for two feet of snow virtually overnight was titled — they were using insect names that year — “Lake Storm Aphid” by the NWS, but ask any Buffalonian and they’ll refer to it as the October Surprise. The Christmas Blizzard of 2001, 80-plus inches over a week’s time, is called the (what else?) Christmas Blizzard of 2001 by locals. As the second storm in a bird-themed year, the NWS calls it “Bald Eagle.” Given those options, colloquial names would probably win out anyway: a January 1985 storm was christened the Six-Pack Storm when then-mayor Jimmy Griffin advised the populace to “stay home, grab a six pack, and watch a good football game.” Come on, that’s catchier than whatever the NWS would have chosen.

The Weather Channel picked up the practice when it poached Tom Niziol out of the NWS Buffalo office, where he’d been meteorologist-in-charge. Though they decided to keep avoiding using regular person names, there are two crucial differences between the NWS naming conventions and the Weather Channel’s. First, the Weather Channel names storms up to three days before they strike, whereas the NWS waits until the storm’s over and its extent known. Second, the Weather Channel publicizes the bejeezus out of their names. Snowstorm Nemo just hit last Friday, but the Weather Channel has been heralding its arrival on broadcasts since the beginning of the week. But this leaves them open to being the forecasters who cried “snow day.” I’m sure everyone remembers, as kids, hearing the weatherperson on the news predicting an exciting, school-closing-worthy foot of snow and then waking up the next morning to nothing more serious than some crappy frost. Now imagine the disappointment when the dud storm even had a name.

As for naming storms, well, it’s understandable that the Weather Channel would adopt the idea. As you might expect during a major hurricane, both the TV channel and saw an incredible uptick in viewers (and, thus, ad dollars) during Hurricane Sandy. Local on the 8s, despite being the best thing on television, doesn’t carry the same thrill as watching Jim Cantore struggle to stand upright on a beach somewhere.

And you just can’t call everything “Snowmaggedon.”

Though the Weather Channel claims to be doing this in part to raise awareness of inbound snowstorms, there are problems inherent: lake effect snow is not a Nor’easter, an ice storm is not a blizzard. While hurricanes have defined classes, and get assigned a name once they cross a certain threshold, the structure of a snowstorm is less clear. Snowstorms do not all have the same classification, and defining them is not a clear process. For example, an inch or two of snow is nothing to, say, Maine, but that same amount can grind Georgia to a halt. For this reason, The National Weather Service has asked its staff to refrain from using the Weather Channel’s names. The Buffalo NWS office, should this weekend’s storm be determined to have enough of an impact on the region, will add it to the record not as “Nemo” but as, in accordance with the theme, an element of the periodic table that starts with C.

The Weather Channel has not, as far as fervent Googling can discover, announced the names for next year. This year it was mythical characters — next year, who knows? I doubt they’ll pick up any of the Buffalo office’s themes, though. I really don’t see the Weather Channel ever embarking on a coverage blitz to warn everyone about “Snowstorm Holstein.”

Update on an old Fun With Maps! Just over a year ago I mentioned that the next Landsat, the USGS satellite imagery program, was launching in early 2013

. Well, guess what! That day is here! Today, at precisely 1:02pm*** Eastern, the LDCM (Landsat Data Continuity Mission) will be flung into orbit by an Atlas V rocket out of Vandenburg Air Force Base in southern California. It’s not the only launch today; a Soyuz delivery package was launched at 9:42am EST, with cargo bound for the International Space Station. It was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the same place from which Sputnik 1 made orbit. Vandenburg is the ideal US launch site for satellites going into polar orbit as the operation requires 30% less fuel than a Florida-based launch, where it would need extra propulsion to avoid populated areas on its way to space. From California, if you miss orbit, you just hit ocean. The LDCM launch is streaming live on NASA TV.

* Although this presents a different problem. The Midwest’s Blizzard of ’78 and New England’s Blizzard of ’78 happened weeks apart, caused by completely different weather systems.

** Extremely well plowed roads, of course. The city (all upstate cities, really) has some of the best plows in the business. They are truly wondrous to behold. But still, there are always people that lose their minds and buy a cart full of milk and toilet paper. Every blizzard I get a jubilant phone call from my dad, like clockwork, having a time at the nearest Wegmans. He likes to think of snow panic as a spectator sport.

*** Well, a launch window of 1:02–1:50pm. But you don’t want to be late, do you?

A version of this column first appeared on

Victoria Johnson points out that, at the current exchange rate, it costs just $265.97 USD, for “High-Pressure Center Vicky.” Just, y’know, in case you were wondering. 1977 photo, taken in Tonawanda, New York, by Jeff Wurstner.