Away out here they've got a name for rain and wind and fire. The rain is Tess, the fire's Jo. They call the wind Maria.
-- Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, 1951
This week's snowstorm might go down in meteorological records as "the Blizzard of '03," or some other officially forgettable designation, but it won't be remembered as Snowstorm Bob or Blizzard Betsy.
Meteorologists don't name snowstorms like they name hurricanes.
"Naming them just doesn't fit," says Scott Kaiser, senior meteorologist at National Weather Service headquarters in Silver Spring.
"They are just different animals than hurricanes," says local TV weather guru Bob Ryan, Channel 4's chief meteorologist. "It's like, why don't we call grizzly bears cute little names like we call panda bears?"
Naming hurricanes, after all, caught on out of necessity. Pilots flying missions over the Pacific during World War II became weary of calling out storm locations by latitude and longitude ad nauseam and not knowing which storm was which. They started naming storms using the phonetic alphabet -- Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, says Kaiser. "And that quickly segued into female names," probably inspired by the 1941 George Rippey Stewart bestseller "Storm," in which the monster storm was named Maria. (This was also the inspiration for Broadway's Lerner and Loewe.)
By 1953, the National Hurricane Center had adopted the practice. A quarter-century later meteorologists started adding male names.
So things in the tropical cyclone family of larger-than-life violent weather events -- tropical storms, hurricanes and typhoons -- get named.
Not tornadoes, though. Not only does Tornado Tommy sound too cartoonish, but with about a thousand twisters a year, says Kaiser, meteorologists would fast run out of names.
And not snowstorms.
A couple of years ago, a TV station tried it. During the winter of 1998-99, WCAU in Philadelphia asked viewers to send in winter-storm name nominations, then picked the top 20. But the experiment proved to be a slippery slope.
"If we had a storm Charles coming up the coast, and I called it Chuck because it turned into a half of inch of rain and wasn't a Charles anymore, the producer would get bent out of shape," says John Bolaris, now at WCBS in New York City but then a meteorologist at WCAU.
The problem, says Bolaris, is that the weather biz operates on a margin of error. "If you name a storm and it doesn't do anything," says Bolaris, "you wind up looking pretty silly."
Some viewers even ridiculed the station's gambit. One suggested that the station call one-inch dustings "Junior, Midge, Dinky and Pee Wee."
Philadelphia resident Rich Wilhelm, who writes the weekly online column "The Dichotomy of the Dog," recalls "much rolling of eyes whenever mention of Winter Storm Andy or whatever" came on the weather report. "I don't think the weather team got to 'Winter Storm Conrad' before even they realized that naming snowstorms was completely absurd."
Another unpredicted problem: Naming winter storms had an adrenaline effect on some viewers, making them worry more than did unnamed storms.
"You got to keep it to the 'simple stupid' theory and just name hurricanes because putting a name on it adds a fear factor," says Bolaris.
But apparently not in Buffalo. Meteorologists at the National Weather Service's office there have been unofficially naming winter storms for nine years.
"We do, yeah. We name any lake-effect storm [that drops snow of] more than six inches anywhere in Upstate New York," says Buffalo NWS meteorologist Steve McLaughlin.
The office also has a "Lake Flake Scale" to rate impact: one flake for wimpy storms to five flakes for epic mega-storms.
Local "TV mets" use the snowstorm names and so do residents, he says. "We don't put it on the official product because that becomes a political thing. It would have to be approved and that gets to be complicated with your Washington bureaucrats."
McLaughlin recalls "Chestnut," a miserable storm whose 20 inches of snow paralyzed Buffalo in November 2000. "That year it was kinds of trees -- we had storms named Dogwood, Aspen and Eucalyptus."
For this year's 14 snowstorms, it's famous scientists. Archimedes was the first. The five-flake Newton, with 12 to 50 inches, hit last week.
Why does Buffalo name storms? The official reason: It's easier to refer to names "and we've got to keep sane somehow here in the winter."
But Washington's Bob Ryan says it's too hard to name snowstorms because they're too unpredictable to hold to a criterion. "The basic answer why we don't name them is because we know their impact after the fact or during the fact but not before," he says.
Hurricanes "live much longer and they have an eye," Ryan says. "Almost every hurricane that hits was a hurricane before it hit. Those that get public response and emergency warnings get names."
Adds Bolaris: "With the winter storm, the character changes everyplace it goes. What if it goes across the Rockies and you name it Fred, then it's just rain in Texas? Calling rain Fred sounds like a joke after a while."
Or maybe it's the first-name intimacy that's problematic. TV meteorologists tend to tag memorable storms eventually anyway. One storm that dropped three feet of snow between Charlottesville and Annapolis in 1772 was anointed the "Washington and Jefferson Snow Storm" because both founding fathers recorded accounts of it in their diaries.
And who could forget the "Great Furlough Storm" of 1996 when more than two feet of snow buried the nation's capital, preventing federal employees who had been shut out of work a month by a federal budget impasse from returning to their jobs?
But officially we don't name snowstorms. But if we did name snowstorms, what's an appropriate one for this week's calamity? "For the foreseeable future," says Ryan, "it will be called "The Storm of the Century."