With several major snowstorms blanketing the U.S. this winter following the massive event that was Hurricane Sandy in the fall, people will undoubtedly be talking about this year’s weather for a long time to come. But after the lingering questions about cleanup and funding are resolved, some will still ponder another burning question: Why do forecasters keep changing their minds about whether a particular storm is a nor’easter, winter storm, superstorm, blizzard or something completely different?
In retrospect, should Sandy be called a hurricane or tropical storm since it was downgraded at certain points? If a storm fits more than one category, what should win out? And is “superstorm” a real word?
The same questions have been asked with the most recent major snowstorms. When a massive storm glided across the United States from February 22 to 24, the Connecticut Post warned readers, “Get ready for another nor’easter to slam the Northeast this weekend bringing rain and some snow.” But NBC News went with, “A winter storm that raked the Great Lakes states was headed for the Northeast.” And neither outlet used “blizzard.”
Dan Pydynowski, a senior meteorologist with Accuweather in State College, Pa., said that some of the terms have more specific definitions than others.
“In terms of blizzard, there’s a specific criteria we look at with respect to what the winds are and what the visibility is reduced to with the snow,” he said.
In fact, according to the National Weather Service in Washington, D.C., a blizzard must have winds of 35 miles per hour or greater and snow that reduces visibility to less than a quarter mile.
Pydynowski said, “In terms of a nor’easter, there’s no exact scientific or strict definition like there is for a blizzard, per se, but generally speaking, the term is usually used when there’s a powerful or rapidly strengthening area of low pressure moving northward along the Eastern seaboard and causing snow and even rain sometimes, especially in coastal areas where it might be a little milder.”
So could a blizzard be a nor’easter at the same time?
“Often it could be the case that a nor’easter is causing blizzard conditions,” he said.
And what of Sandy? Controversy has raged over what to call it, because by the time it made landfall in New Jersey, it was not following the normal patterns of tropical hurricanes, behaving more like a winter storm. It also had been downgraded to a tropical storm at certain points in its existence. And there were those who preferred to use the less scientific term “superstorm.”
For his part, Pydynowski favors “hurricane.”
“For most of its life it was a hurricane,” he said. “Even though it might have not been truly tropical at the point it made landfall, continuing to call it a hurricane best got the point across that there were going to be hurricane conditions at the coast. I think with ‘superstorm’ people understand it’s a powerful storm, but people are more familiar with term hurricane, and since that’s what it was for most of its life, it seems reasonable to call it that.”
The word “superstorm” appears in the most recent version of the Oxford English dictionary online, but not in Merriam-Webster and not in the National Weather Service’s official list of meteorological terms.
To further complicate matters, the Weather Channel inspired controversy last fall by deciding to give winter storms proper names this season, just like hurricanes. But Accuweather promptly issued a press release in October blasting the idea.
Accuweather President Dr. Joel N. Myers said in the release, “We have explored this issue for 20 years and have found that this is not good science and importantly will actually mislead the public…Hurricanes have a life of many days and often weeks…By contrast, winter storms are often erratic, affecting different areas unevenly. The public will not know what action to take when there is a ‘named’ storm, or may take the wrong action.”
Many people poked fun at the Weather Channel in early February for calling a Northeast winter storm “Nemo,” which seemed too cutesy, but it’s just the start; a storm predicted for the first week in March was given the name “Winter Storm Saturn,” and future storms are set to be named Triton, Ukko, Virgil, Walda, Xerxes, Yogi, and Zeus, according to the list on their website.
Tired of winter storms altogether? Take heart. Spring returns on Wednesday, March 20, 2013. Just remember that April showers are not far behind. And then there’s hurricane season, which starts on May 15 in the Pacific and June 1 in the Atlantic.
The first five named hurricanes for 2013, according to the National Hurricane Center, will be Andrea, Barry, Chantal, Dorian, and Erin.
Source: Personal interview of Dan Prydynowski over the phone.