Saturday, January 05, 2013

Beware of Orko

Katrina is retired. Likewise, so are Hortese, Gloria and Fifi. No, these weren't teachers in the local elementary school, your mother's bridge friends or Diana Ross' back-up singers. Rather, they are just some of the 76 hurricane names sunsetted because of their destructive power and negative associations. It's a list that Sandy is expected to join, even though there is some debate as to whether that storm was really a hurricane, or a hybrid cyclone-nor'easter-tropical depression, a distinction without a difference if ever there was one.

Since 1950, the U.S. Weather Bureau has been naming Atlantic storms using an evolving protocol. In the beginning it followed the military radio alphabet of Able, Baker and Charlie. Then in 1953, they changed to a list of women's names, following a World War II custom wherein U.S. Army Air Corp and Navy meteorologists named Pacific cyclones after girlfriends and wives. That in itself was a practice inspired by "Storm," a 1941 novel in which a junior meteorologist names one "Maria" after a former girlfriend. And even that had roots: reportedly, the first use of a proper name for a tropical cyclone was by an Australian forecaster in the early in the 20th century. He gave storms the names of political figures whom he disliked, enabling him to say publicly that a politician was "causing great distress and wandering aimlessly about the Pacific."

More recently, in a bow to gender equity, cyclones added male names in 1978, with hurricanes following in 1979. The U.S. Weather Service is the keeper of these aggressive flames for storms originating in the Atlantic, but the situation in the Pacific isn't so simple. While the World Meteorological Organization has a master list for large scale events, many countries also have their own naming schemes for storms originating in their waters. And so a hypothetical storm that was the second of the season and originated near Brisbane, threatened Papua New Guinea, then veered to Mindanao before taking aim at Jakarta could be known as Billy-Buri-Butchoy-Bakung.

However, all that refers to summer storms, spawned over warm water and affecting large areas comprising multiple national land masses. Domestically it's a different story in winter, when snow and ice rushes in from Canada, starts in Detroit and shoves its way towards Boston and New York. Up till now it's been left to local papers to pick up the slack. The result? You get monikers such as "The Presidents' Day Storm" or "Christmas Storm" which hardly grabs the headlines. The New York Post does its best to pitch in, with banners like "Snowmageddon" and "Frankenstorm." But there is no single voice to unite our regional misery.

Until this year, that is. The Weather Channel, sensing a national need (and a marketing opportunity) is stepping into the void, and has started naming winter storms. In a press release they say that this should "make communication and information sharing much easier, especially in the era of social media. For example, hash tagging a storm based on its name will provide an easy way to gather all of the latest information on an impending high-impact weather system." According to their Winter Weather Expert Tim Nizol (Twitter bio: Snow is my passion as well as my hobby), "Naming winter storms will raise awareness, which will lead to more pro-active efforts to plan ahead, resulting in less impact on the public overall."  

As to the names themselves, TWC released its initial list, which includes lots of historical and mythical references. There's "Draco," for the first legislator of Athens in Ancient Greece, "Freyr" for the Norse god associated with fair weather, and "Orko" for the thunder god in Basque mythology. But it's not all high-brow: a potential 17th storm is to be named "Q," after the Broadway Express subway line in New York City.

While it seems harmless, there is a potential downside. Having a commercial entity in charge does open the door to commercialization of the process. For instance, note that the "G" storm is "Gandolf" from the 1896 fantasy novel "The Well at the World's End," and not "Gandalf" of "Lord of the Rings" fame. Otherwise, we could face a threat to our sovereignty: just like the Japanese once owned Rockefeller Center, we could have to pay royalties to New Zealander Peter Jackson for our own weather.


Marc Wollin of Bedford almost missed the memo about naming winter storms. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer, online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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