When is a winter storm "bombogenesis," a "blizzard," or in the case of the oncoming winter weather event, both?
The Inuit may have more than 50 words for snow, but meteorologists have a blizzard of terms they are starting to unleash to describe the monster storm heading toward the Northeast. Of course, social media then helps to amplify – or distort – the terminology.
“Every season the media likes to find some new term like 'bombogenesis' or 'polar vortex, both of which have been around in meteorology a long time,” says meteorologist Jon Hitchcock, of National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Weather Service office in Buffalo, N.Y. in a phone interview. “The trouble is that now we have social media and media people on social media mixing terms, often misusing them all for a hashtag or headline.”
What Mr. Hitchcock describes as happening in social media where weather is concerned might well be minted as the "hashtag effect" – meaning the rate at which an ancient, obscure meteorological term becomes popular on social media and subsequently misunderstood and misused.
Bombogenesis, or a giant snow bomb effect, says Hancock, occurs when a storm's area of lowest surface pressure experiences a rapid drop of more than 24 millibars in 24 hours. And, yes, it's now a hashtag as folks from Philadelphia to Portland, Maine, brace for a blizzard.
The word "blizzard" is one that’s often used incorrectly to describe "a weather event that’s really just a lot of snow,” Hitchcock explains. “A blizzard only applies to a wind-driven snow storm that creates zero-visibility for a stretch of more than three hours with winds exceeding 35 miles per hour.”
The storm that is headed for the northeastern seaboard from New York to Boston may also be rare in that those using the word "blizzard" may finally have the opportunity to be correct in its application since meteorologists actually are forecasting a blizzard that is the product of bombogenesis, Hitchcock says.
“This is certainly going to be a high-impact storm,” Hitchcock says. “It’s absolutely going to be a blizzard.”
It seems appropriate to shovel out from under the hashtags and hyperbole connected with a massive winter weather event and learn what’s what.
Below are some of the various alerts that may begin to pop up on social media, weather alert apps for smartphones, and traditional media reports, according to the NOAA website where a full glossary of terms is also available.
For starters, there is a difference between a storm "watch" and a "warning."
A "winter storm watch" means there may be hazardous winter weather due to various elements such as heavy snow, sleet, or ice accumulation from freezing rain.
A "winter storm warning" is issued when a dangerous combination of heavy snow, with sleet and/or freezing rain, will occur or has a high probability of occurring within the next 12 hours.
A "wind chill warning measures how life threatening the cold is when the wind factor is added to the event. A warning is issued when wind chill temperatures are -40 degrees F. or less for at least 3 hours. “Exposure to this combination of strong winds and low temperatures without protective clothing will quickly lead to frostbite and/or hypothermia. Longer exposures can be fatal,” according to the NOAA site.
"Arctic air" refers to “a mass of very cold, dry air that usually originates over the Arctic Ocean north of Canada and Alaska.”
"Arctic high" means “a very cold high pressure that originates over the Arctic Ocean.”
A "polar vortex," which became such a popular hashtag last year is “a circumpolar wind circulation which isolates the Antarctic continent during the cold Southern Hemisphere winter, heightening ozone depletion,” according to the NOAA website.
Of course, those who live in the far north of Canada, Alaska, and eastern Russia, would be familiar with another winter lexicon. The Inuit people have hundreds of winter terms such as ylaipi because it is “tomorrow's snow,” which will be tlapinti (snow that falls quickly) and also rotlana (snow that accumulates quickly) and finally krotla (snow that blinds you) to describe this storm, according to a glossary of Inuit terms describing snow.
But apparently, the Inuit don't have the equivalent of "bombogensis" – yet.